I commend her for her passion and courage in pursuing this goal and think it has important possibilities that need to be explored and considered by all of us. I also think there are some significant differences between making porn and other kinds of sex work that pose particular challenges to the organizing process.
There have been several previous attempts to unionize performers and all have failed so far, beginning with the ugly rebuff Nina and others got from SAG when they first tried to join that existing union twenty years ago.
If that effort had been successful, how different things might have been for all of us. Alas, we'll never know. What we do know is that subsequent attempts at union organizing from within, most recently Mr. Marcus's efforts to assemble a performers' association just a couple of years back, have unraveled in the early phases.
Back in the day, when a handful of producers controlled the small number of active production companies, and thus the employment prospects of every player, it was downright risky to even whisper about the possibility of unionization of the talent pool. Even as cautious an approach as The Pink Lady's Social Club which Nina, Porsche Lynn, Hyapatia Lee and a few other top names tried to form as a regular discussion group, met with direct threats from major company owners of collective black-balling. This kind of heavy-handed union-busting wouldn't have been tolerated in any other industry, but given porn's just-legalized status at the time, and the particularly shaky ground it occupied in L.A. county prior to the Freeman decision, there wasn't much of anyplace to turn for support from the outside. And that's all the sadder for the fact that the much smaller industry of that time, with far fewer workers concentrated in a much tighter geographical area, would have been far easier to assemble in one hall than the sprawling, disparate community we have now.
In a rabidly competitive atmosphere of hundreds of video companies and thousands of Web sites spread out all over every place and legions of short-time players coming and going in a matter of weeks, months or a couple of years at most, the bad bosses of old have pretty much gone extinct (good riddance IMV) and no producer has the power to prevent other producers from hiring anybody they want. A popular player who is good in front of the camera can always find work, regardless of who does or does not like him or her.
That's all good as far as I can see. Having been a part of this industry's first, abortive try at creating some kind of collective response to the threat of HIV, I was on the receiving end of some incredibly ugly and vicious tactics at the hands of various underlings whose employers saw what we were doing as a nose under the tent for unionization. I even got a phone call from a "friend" who had been talking to some other "friends" of his who worked for "a certain kind of company" and just wanted to pass along a "friendly" warning that such talk could be bad for my health. I suggested he pass back to his other "friends" an equally "friendly" warning from me that I was pretty good with a .45 and not too shy about using it if some mooks with baseball bats decided to meet me in a studio parking lot after a late-night shoot sometime, as my "friend" implied might happen. When old-timers wax nostalgic about those times, that's what I remember, so good-bye to all that and happily so.
However, now we face a different set of difficulties. The very thing that has reduced the power of major producers has also diffused the potential power of organized labor in porn. A large, transient workforce with no long-term stake in the well-being of a business in which they know they won't be present long presents a daunting organizing challenge. Unlike strippers, who tend to work for long periods at particular clubs, or escorts who may move from agency to agency but remain in the seem locale, porn performers come into this business very young and don't stay here for more than a couple of years in most cases. They don't see themselves as having a common concern with the the welfare of others like themselves, who they tend to view as competitors for the same gigs rather than brothers and sisters in the same situation.
The root problem is that most performers see themselves as small business operators rather than workers. This isn't just a fiction cooked up by company lawyers to avoid the burdensome regulations that apply to regular employment. Performers really are independent contractors. They may work for more than one company in a single day, five in a week, twenty in a month, a hundred in a year. If they run into something they don' t like on a particular set, they just walk off the job and tell their agents not to book them for that specific company again. To the extent that people in this age and educational demographic have any politics at all, they tend to be libertarian in the extreme. They just want to be left alone to make their money and have their fun and, when they figure out how, move on to some other line of work before the phone stops ringing. This is hardly comfortable terrain for aspiring labor organizers. The question such organizers face, as they would from any group of workers, is "what can you really do for us that we can't do for ourselves?" In many industries, the answers are fairly obvious, because there are common conditions that those who possess particular skill sets work under in an atmosphere of limited employment opportunities. Solidarity is more easily built where there is a sense of common disadvantages around which to organize.
In porn, every company has different policies. Every shoot has different pluses and minuses. Every day presents a new set of ups and downs. And by the time you've been around long enough to see any connection among these things, you're probably almost done here.
Moreover, the economics of legal porn are hugely different from those of other forms of sex work. For one thing, as I've discussed earlier, porn performers face no significant threat of prosecution persuant to making their livings. They work, get paid and go home without worrying about the cops. And the money itself is pretty good and pretty steady for as long as it holds out, which in a young sex worker's mind equals prosperity and independence. The notion of sticking around to set down roots, buy houses, raise families and someday retire on a pension is as fanciful to porn performers as it has traditionally been to hard-rock miners, another group that has never been successfully unionized. Unlike shift-working coal miners who inherit a dangerous family trade from which they see no ultimate escape, metals miners, from way back to the gold rush era, have tended to see themselves as prospectors who would one day strike it rich and never swing a pick again.
Porn players almost all have long-range ambitions outside of what they're doing now. Many aspire to become directors and/or producers themselves, as quite a few have, ranging from John Stagliano to Jenna Jameson. On many key issues, such as regulation of working conditions, performers may well identify with their employers' values as much as with those of other workers.
Then there's the flake factor. We're dealing with a very youthful workforce that often doesn't show up on sets where they have checks waiting, much less for the tedious, time-consuming tasks inherent in starting any kind of effective labor organization. That requires a long attention-span and a view over the horizon. It's harder and less satisfying, at least in the early phases, than simply partying away the ugly memories of a bad day on the job. After all, tomorrow's job may be a lot more fun, whether or not the performer does anything to make it better or worse individually or collectively.
Okay, so that's the strategic map upon which an unionization battles would be fought. It's not encouraging to contemplate, but neither is it insurmountable. The SEIU faced some very similar problems, greatly aggravated by the fact that much of its potential membership was in this country illegally and didn't speak English. They too were transient, unmoored from specific trades and invisible on the radar of mainstream media and politics, except as punching-bags for demagogues of the sort who bedevil porn workers. And yet the SEIU is now one of the most visible and influential unions in the country. Woe betide the politician or employer of whatever rank who crosses it.
Entertainment industry unions of other sorts have overcome similar hurdles. Writers, actors and directors in film and television are also competitive with one another, work mostly independently, seldom have regular employment from ongoing sources and experience great class disparity in their own ranks. At any given time, for example, the WGA has about 90% of its membership out of work, while the other ten percent is often extremely well compensated and may also have one foot over the fence into management. Yet we just saw the WGA stare down the producers over new media residuals in time for Oscar night. Directors, actors and crews have managed to unionize successfully, while musicians, for example, have not, mainly I suspect for the same reasons porn performers haven't. They don't understand the long-term need.
Perhaps the model in the film industry, which is more trade guild than classic trade union, would hold some promise in our branch of the ent biz. Frankly, if this were going to be my cause, which it can't be for many reasons at this late date, I'd start with the crews. They are fewer in number, their terms and conditions of employment more homogenous, their stays in the industry much longer and, given how few of them have the technical skills needed to maintain a steady flow of new production, potentially more powerful than performers. They may not see what they do as sex work, which it only tangentially is, but they do see it as labor and the conditions under which it's practiced - long days, unreliable and inconsistent compensation, dangerous and unhealthful working environments, no benefits of any kind, short or long term - only inspire griping at present, but could eventually rile them to the point of making something of it.
Consider this, from a producer's point of view (and yes, I am a producer, which is one reason why the traditional union model excludes any direct assistance from me), crews are far more intimidating than performers. If a performer fails to show or decides to quit, I can just call an agency and have a replacement on the set in an hour. If my camera operator quits, I'm fucked. There are maybe a dozen guys in the whole business who could shoot what I need shot, and ten of them are probably already working for one of my competitors that day. So much for that shoot.
One thing I do not see, sadly, is performers as a group making common cause with other sex workers, whether strippers, escorts, massage parlor workers or street walkers. There is a cultural problem inherent in this climate that makes that an unlikely outcome. As I've explained before, most porn performers don't want to be seen as sex workers but rather as entertainers (while I think a good case can be made that other kinds of sex workers are also entertainers, with smaller audiences to be sure, but nevertheless, and might do better by viewing themselves as such). They fear for their legal status if they cast their lot with those who work even closer to the edge of prohibition, and for those performers who also provide in their off hours, the risks involved are real.
And even for those who don't, the psychological barriers to accepting that what they do is sex work, whatever its called, are hard to overcome. It's one thing to play a whore on TV, quite another to face one in the mirror each morning. That takes a degree of self-actualizing fortitude that may be very hard to come by in this environment. Identifying with the oppression and the struggle of less privileged sex workers is not a pleasant thing to contemplate for someone who prefers to see him or herself as a "star."
This is a wedge that APFs effectively drive between us all the time. They love to go on and on about how a lucky few of us get all the rewards while vast numbers of "enslaved, brutalized, prostituted women" suffer all the miseries into which our visible good fortune has seduced them.
Somehow, we need to take that wedge out of the hands of those who want to see sex work abolished and those who profit by keeping it divided and powerless. Between them, our common enemies make a formidable opposition to be conquered, and before we can take them on, we have to rise above our own misgivings from within.
This is going to take some doing, but I believe it is doable in some form.