At first glance, Matilda Bickers and Elle Stanger seem to have much in common.
Both women have danced at Portland strip clubs. Bickers worked at vegan club Casa Diablo and Stanger across the Willamette River at Lucky Devil—where management let her dance in Converse sneakers. Both wrote for local sex industry publications: Bickers for her zine Working It, Stanger for Exotic.
Four years ago, the two women appeared on a bigger stage: in front of the Oregon Legislature, where they debated efforts to expand workplace protections for Oregon strippers.
They don't agree on much. "Everyone says I need to be getting along with [Stanger], so I try really hard," Bickers said in 2015, "though, obviously, I think she's a misinformed idiot."
Bickers and Stanger are still heads of opposing factions. Bickers, 34, leads a group of dancers who think their best shot at improving working conditions at clubs is by ending the practice of hiring dancers as independent contractors.
Bickers argues that dancers would have better workplace protections if they were hired as full-time employees.
Stanger, 32, disagrees. She counters that if dancers became employees, clubs would tell them they couldn't refuse private dances for customers they didn't want to dance for, would take more of their earnings, and that Oregon law might ban them from drinking at work.
She points to recent changes in California as evidence of how employee status hurts dancers. "I've been asking [California dancers], 'Please tell me if you have been switched to employee status. Please tell me if it was beneficial to you in any way. I would like to know,'" Stanger says. "And I have not heard a peep."
In 2015, Oregon lawmakers tried a compromise that would help dancers without dictating their worker status. They created a dedicated hotline for entertainers to report workplace violations, run by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, and a poster with the hotline number that would be posted in clubs. Bickers was hired to be the hotline's first operator.
But the phone didn't ring. It received just 14 calls over the past three years, according to BOLI. The hotline was funded for just 18 months and may soon cease to functionally exist.
And the debate over whether dancers should be club employees? It's more heated than ever, thanks to a recent California court ruling that sent ripples through the strip club industry.
Strip clubs are big business in Oregon. There are at least 71 clubs in the state, by one estimate, each with anywhere from two to more than 40 dancers working every shift. (BOLI says it doesn't track the number of dancers working in the state.)
It's an industry in which workers hold little power, somewhat like undocumented manual laborers or Uber drivers. Independent contractors aren't legally protected from sexual harassment or discrimination, can't form unions and aren't covered by workers' compensation. Worst-case scenarios included workplaces so filthy that in 2015 dancers described contracting antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections from dirty stages ("Political Pole," WW, Aug. 12, 2015).
But contractor status also means freedom. Dancers generally prize getting to set their own schedules, telling clubs when they're available, and deciding when, where and how often they work.
The debate over employee status among strippers focuses on that same fundamental question: Is a loss of income or freedom of scheduling a consequence of employee status itself, or is it the consequence of chain clubs continuing to violate labor law after they put dancers on payroll?
That argument is newly urgent today as Oregon dancers nervously eye California, where this year some clubs converted all of their dancers to employees in a way that deeply cut into dancer earnings, after that state's Supreme Court ruled on independent contractor standards. Down there, some dancers have blamed employee status itself, while a group of dancers suing their club in San Diego say the clubs are purposely retaliating against dancers by paying them less than they are owed.
When Sen. Kathleen Taylor (D-Portland) introduced Senate Bill 280 this January to classify dancers as club employees and require clubs to submit dancers' legal names and proof of age to the state, Stanger immediately went to her with stories from California strippers about how much less they were making.
For once, the two dancers agreed on something. Bickers told Taylor that making dancers employees would help only if lawmakers also approved funding for enforcement.
A Taylor aide, Amanda Kraus, tells WW the bill is dead.
Taylor's bill marks the third time this decade legislation making dancers employees has failed.
But at an informational legal training session about employee status that Bickers organized around the bill in January, an old argument flared up again when Stanger showed up.
"I asked Matilda, 'Why are you pushing employee status when you don't work in the industry anymore and these things won't impact you at all?' and so we had a weird argument," Stanger recalls. "And in the hallway she tried to touch my arm, and I said, 'Don't ever fuckin' touch me.'"
Stanger and Bickers agree the 2015 compromise reform—the hotline and workplace poster—solved nothing, in part because they were poorly promoted and supported.
"I called that line when it was open, and either no one picked up or there was a recording asking me to leave my information," Stanger says. "Obviously, someone who's in crisis or duress or afraid isn't going to want to do that."
Bickers wonders whether dancers were aware the hotline existed.
"Three months into the job, nobody I knew had seen the poster in person unless I gave it to them," she says.
Before he left office in January, former Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian requested Senate Bill 86, which would remove the requirement that the hotline have a dedicated staffer with a background in the industry or working a crisis line. That bill is now being considered by the Legislature.
Bickers is frustrated. Lawmakers have once again failed to make significant changes. And their last reform proved an empty gesture.
As a hotline operator, she says she answered five calls in four months. One came from a club owner who wanted to know where he could put the poster, she says. "He wanted to know how visible it had to be or if he could just put it behind the icebox."