The Naked and the Red
The lap-dance clubs near the big hotels commit the cardinal sin of drawing guests off these resort properties and out of the casinos and pricey restaurants. And some of these clubs are very big businesses in themselves. The newly opened Sapphire Gentleman's Club is a $25 million investment that draws upon a pool of 6,000 dancers. In short, it seems the casinos have been using their political clout to shut down competition from the dance clubs. "This is life in the post-9/11 economic environment," says Hackett, sounding very much like a union economist. "It's all about the corporations shifting their revenue and profit stream away from gaming." Traditionally, the corporate owners of Vegas have made 60-70 percent of their profits from gambling and the rest from lodging, food and entertainment. But at the recent "American Gaming Summit," the CEO of the powerhouse MGM Mirage boasted of how his corporation has managed to invert that formula.
Not everyone agrees with Hackett that the big casinos are the lone motivating force behind the lap-dance suppression. "No question that in the end this is about economics," says Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. But Peck thinks the pressure might also be coming from some of the bigger, politically connected dance clubs trying to squeeze out the smaller ones. He also argues that some of the county commissioners behind the ordinance have a less than healthy view of sex. "It's very difficult for me to delve into the heads of that crowd," he says with a laugh. "But I can certainly tell you they are obsessed with sex!" Of his alliance with Hackett, Peck says: "She's working with women who are working people and whose business is protected by the First Amendment. And that is where our interests and concerns coincide."
Hackett, meanwhile, has found fertile organizing territory among the dancers, who have also been feeling the economic pinch of the past two years. While in the salad days of the dot.com bubble a top dancer could count on maybe forty to fifty lap dances a night at $25 each, today she is lucky to do ten. "You might think that's a lot of money either way," says Hackett. "But we are exploited by everybody." Vegas's exotic dancers are treated as "independent contractors" by club owners, meaning not only are they not on the payroll, thus receiving no benefits or insurance, but they have to pay the owners as much as $70 a night just for the right to perform. Then there are payoffs to the bouncers, the deejays and sometimes even to the parking valets. And whatever money is generated by the dancers has to be split with the club owners, sometimes on a 50-50 basis.
The non-employee status of the dancers may eventually thwart unionization efforts, but in that case the LVDA could still exert influence as a "professional organization," perhaps on the model of the National Writers Union. The alliance is also close to concluding a deal with an insurance carrier so that dancer-members would be able to purchase healthcare at group rates. Once that deal is concluded, alliance membership could soar.
LVDA can already claim some partial victories. Vigorous lobbying, a few rallies and marches downtown, and oodles of local and even international publicity forced partial reversal of last summer's near-total ban on lap dancing. Some weeks ago Clark County officials amended the ordinance so that G-string tipping would once again be allowed. Hackett's group has also convinced local county and city officials to put on the back burner proposals to impose a stiff registration and licensing tax on individual dancers. Nevertheless, there's been a marked increase in arrests and ticketing of dancers since last summer's law went into effect. "All that law has done is turn us into criminals," says Hackett. So she's moving ahead with a new project: sponsoring a countywide measure, known as the Protection of Dancing Initiative, that will impose standardized regulation of the industry and reverse the more draconian aspects of the recent legislation. "Call it Christmas for dancers," says Hackett. To qualify these measures for the ballot, thousands of voter signatures will have to be gathered in the next few months. Hackett is confident. "We've already lined up squads of volunteer signature gatherers," she says mischievously. "And they are all hardbodies," she says, using the industry term that refers to the youngest dancers, usually 18-21 years old. "Now you tell me, honey," she says, "you think anyone walking the streets of Vegas is gonna say no to these girls?''
The signature campaign is now getting under way. But even before that, Hackett and her hard-core group of about fifty activists were already working around the clock, leafleting the dance clubs for new members, shopping around for union affiliation and plotting out the initiative campaign.
By night Hackett is still dancing at the Deja Vu Showgirls club. By day she is putting the finishing touches on what she's calling her own "Politics of Dancing" educational course--designed, she says, to offer a quick political education to the average apolitical 19-year-old nude dancer. Hackett has already written a first primer. Skimming through the 7,500-word pamphlet, it's clear that the enforcers of decency at the County Commission and the casino interests behind them have taken on a formidable opponent. Hackett closes by saying she hopes her work can "help solidify the great natural allies of the American left and begin to heal the wounds inflicted by our natural enemies on the American right...the first basic facts to remember are these: There are far less rich people than poor people. And the rich generally want things to stay the way they are. The poor, by their very nature, want things to change, hopefully for the better."
Hackett has recently started working with a nucleus of nude dancers in Texas who are trying to organize. And eventually, she says, she'd like to have a national organization. "I've already got the name figured out. The United States Dancers Alliance. Or USDA," she says with a laugh, slapping her flank. "Get it?"