The pandemic has showed enormous cracks in the way that we support workers, both those who must remain on the front lines, and those who are currently trying to figure out how to pay bills when the world is in quarantine.
Sex workers in particular have been hit hard, with many living at the intersection of health concerns causing a drop in clients, and the eternal struggle of informal/under the table workers just having more difficulty in accessing many of the expanding social support systems. Some sex workers have even been lobbying to try and have governments consider them essential workers so they can go back to work.
But even essential workers are facing problems with labor. Hazard pay, protective equipment, and safer working conditions topped the list of demands spurring a May Day workers’ strike on Friday, May 1. And this growing awareness of the precarity, economic and physical, of all workers is causing a spike in cross-sector organizing, and creating the opportunity for an entirely new conversation – one in which sex workers may play a more prominent role.
Old and New Labor, New Organizing
While people have long been piecing together their collected income, only in the last few years has the gig economy gotten serious attention. One survey by the Freelancers Union found that 35% of all workers do some form of gig labor, or independent, on-demand contracting for a larger company; a system that phone sex workers and cam performers are already familiar with. In the rush to expand things like unemployment insurance, it became a stark realization that many of our support systems are set up exclusively for a type of formal labor which has become increasingly outdated. Sex worker organizations across the country immediately made shifts into mutual aid support, changing outreach strategies, and teaching others how to get into online platforms.
Gig Workers Rising, which organizes app and platform based-workers like Lyft and Instacart, quickly responded to shift their labor organizing into a pandemic-focused response, especially after considering a membership base who lacked adequate protections already. Similar to sex workers shifting tactics, GWR is shifting to address immediate needs. “How can we talk about ballot initiatives when no can pay their rent on Friday?” said Lauren Casey, a GWR organizer.
Right now, GWR is educating members on newly available unemployment benefits, offering question and answer sessions, giving direct support, and simply getting masks to as many essential workers as possible.
Unsurprisingly, GWR’s membership base encounters many of the same structural barriers to other types of work as sex workers do, including “going through the criminal justice system, they may not have housing, they may be disabled, [or be] a primary care taker and need to be able to stop working at a moment’s notice.” For the folks Casey organizes, “a lot of the people in the gig economy are living at violent intersections of oppression and the companies know this and take advantage of that.”
To sex worker organizers like Antonia Crane of Soldiers of Pole, labor organizing is simultaneously “impossible and ridiculous, but absolutely vital.” Soldiers of Pole is a stripper/sex worker labor union who has found a home under the Communications Workers of America. In the face the pandemic, and as strip clubs have closed across the state, organizing has shifted in a way that’s mirrored labor’s changes. “It has completely gone online, but I am enjoying the creativity of it: both sex work and organizing.”
Crane, who previously organized at the first cooperatively owned strip club, the Lusty Lady, and SOP are unique in having organized closely with more traditional labor unions, who have been welcoming to what could offer a whole new membership base. “The [CWA] has been incredibly supportive and open and wonderful,” said Crane. “[There’s been] no weirdness around language… they've never once blinked an eye.” To the CWA, just like many sex worker organizations, sex work is work. “You're workers - you deserve rights. Period.”
But the impact of the pandemic has not only been a short-term shift, but a long-term re-envisioning. “[It’s a] mind-bending economic fallout that we're going to see and continue to see. I think this just changes how, we organize, what we need to organize around and who we're organizing in solidarity with,” says Casey.
And everyone – gig workers to sex workers – are preparing for what might be a radical change in organizing. As Crane notes, “Our goals are always shifting because the current political ground is always shifting,” a sentiment shared by Casey. “If you asked what the next two to three years looked like for gig workers eight weeks ago the answer would be different.”
A New Approach Entirely
But this unprecedented level of destabilization has some thinking beyond what labor protections look like, and instead are asking for a full re-envisioning of the nature of work itself. Labor researcher and policy analyst Jillian Hernandez, who previously worked at the Sex Workers Project as an immigration attorney, is intimately familiar with the challenges that sex workers face when trying to access current systems of social support: “We need to get rid of these structures because they were already insufficient, they’re insufficient during the crisis, and they aren't going to be enough after the crisis.” In addition to things like universal healthcare, Hernandez is advocating for a Job Guarantee, or federally guaranteed employment for everyone who applies, instead of things like a raise in the minimum wage, as well as the cancellation of debt across the board. “A $15 minimum wage is not going to be enough because in many places $15 isn't a living wage anymore… to me the antidote for a lot of labor issues is a Job Guarantee.”
Advocate for economic reform Raúl Carrillo seconded this call, and stressed the need for a cancellation of all debt, noting that not only would this support precarious workers, including sex workers, but also improve and stabilize the economy overall. “The US economy is particularly fragile when faced with a pandemic, not because of consumption issues, [but] because people are in debt, most people cannot afford to miss payments. You can guarantee jobs. You can guarantee income, but if you can't stop the money from coming out the back end you’re just reaffirming inequality.” Hernandez concurs, noting that for many different types of workers, they say “we don't live paycheck to paycheck, we live shift to shift.”
But while a jobs guarantee may not include a job doing sex work, it would have a significant impact on the sex industry still, because it lifts the floor of all employment. Hernandez again: “what would strip clubs look like if, at any point, all of the dancers could just leave to get a living wage, unionized job with health care and full benefits? There’s no world in which sex work goes away, we know this, so if you want strip clubs to operate, if you still want these places or this industry, then the material conditions would have to improve.”
And this vision for the sex trade is not far off from Crane’s. “My vision is to completely topple the current power dynamic and see strippers fully realize their power as a workforce and negotiate better working conditions on every level, from what a lap dance looks like, post-COVID to a comprehensive sexual harassment policy and keeping every dollar they make without any interference, mandatory tipping, wage theft, extortion or house fees.”
A New Future or A Distant Future?
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
But more radical change now seems closer than we may think. The pandemic has not only brought the expansion of unemployment to workers who were previously not allowed to apply, but also a federal stimulus which directly gave $1200 to many households, regardless of employment status. Last year, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez introduced resolutions into the House supporting a Green New Deal, which would both restructure the economy while investing in jobs dealing with climate change, making the fights interconnected. Rep. Ro Khanna recently tweeted that sex workers cannot be left out of social support systems:
But is this all just a pipe dream? Arundhati Roy recently wrote in her piece, The Pandemic as Portal, about seeing this moment as one of potential. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” A new economy, one which includes sex workers, might be more possible than ever. Carrillo, is certainly convinced. Asking whether this idea of a jobs guarantee, a cancellation of debt, and a massive overhaul in the system was simply pie in the sky, he seemed even more certain: “it's very possible now.”