Fighting for rights at work is never an easy matter. The very act of complaining about how one is being treated on the job, however unfairly, can elicit choruses of “you ungrateful whiner,” or “you are threatening us all,” from those who tend towards the unsympathetic. Unions, once the safe haven for heroes of the middle class, are currently mocked and shamed in the media, as if all unions are made up of characters from Boardwalk Empire. You know, mafia types with baseball bats and crooked noses. I mean, corporations, (the giant, uncontrollable, financial octopuses of our time) would never stoop so low as to take advantage of an employee. How could I even suggest such a thing?
Doesn’t anybody remember Enron?
Chuckle though you may, low-wage workers, including strippers, hospitality workers, and many of those in the food service industries are often marginalized and stigmatized. The very act of stripping for money is often mocked, considered an illegitimate way to make a living and an anathema to a cultured society. The very least a corporation can do is to take care of its own. So why did a major player in the strip club industry, an industry that is bringing in about $2 billion a year, try to maximize its profits at the expense of the very commodity it uses to draw in customers?
This month, strippers at the Spearmint Rhino chain made a major step forward for those who are at the mercy of such employers. As a group, they won an unprecedented payout of $13 million dollars as a part of a class action suit that put up for investigation long held policies regarding workers rights. In addition to the payout, the club must stop charging the dancers “stage fees” for the right to work and to grant all dancers in their clubs employee status within six months.
At the heart of the issue was the question of how these workers were categorized. For years the club unilaterally classified them as independent contractors, freeing themselves from the obligation to pay worker’s comp, unemployment, and health insurance. However the strippers were still treated as employees: held by the club to strict rules regarding break times, payouts to the club and DJ, as well forced tip sharing. The strippers met all the qualifications of being legal employees but were not receiving any benefits they were legally due because of the way the club was categorizing them.
So what is the big deal about being an employee? It all boils down to the “B” word: benefits, such as health and disability insurance, as well as important contributions to a retirement account. These are not “gifts,” (that annoying word) these are important, legalized contributions an employer makes in order to fairly compensate their employee for their time and commitment to his or her business.
How does this affect the future of unions? Bottom line, if a group of women who are already stigmatized by society have fought for and legally won their right to benefits against a large corporate interest, then it sends a loud message to businesses everywhere: the law is listening to the worker, even the most disenfranchised one, and protecting them.
As Ned Resnikoff of MSNBC so eloquently stated, “Their victory reaffirms what should be obvious: that all jobs are work, and every industry employs workers. And even workers in non-traditional workplaces have rights.”