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updated 11/21/2012 2:50:03 PM ET 2012-11-21T19:50:03

Unions aren't just for white men in hard hats. A new organizing fight in a traditionally non-union industry shows how organized labor is keeping up with the new economy.

The new labor movement looks different than the old, white-men-with-hardhats-and-lunch-buckets model. Today’s unions have more women and more people of color than ever before.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women are only 1.2% less likely to be in a union than men, and African-Americans are more likely to be unionized than whites. The vanguards of the labor movement are in industries where women and people of color make up a significant chunk of the workforce: the public sector, the hospitality and service sectors, and so on.

The service sector in particular is one in which women and people of color are disproportionately represented, and disproportionately likely to endure low pay and poor working conditions. So it should come as no surprise that some of the most vibrant and militant labor campaigns of the past few years have taken place in workplaces wholly unlike the coal mines and auto plants of popular imagination.

Over at The Atlantic, Melissa Gira Grant has a great article profiling one of those workplaces: a California strip club called Spearmint Rhino, where exotic dancers recently won a $13 million settlement and the status of regular employees instead of independent contractors. Grant writes, “As its currently organized, stripping is service work—and not unlike most service work in the United States, it’s a field dominated by women who have to fight to be treated fairly.”

One of the key ways in which bosses and conservative ideologues try to undermine unionism is by stigmatizing or marginalizing certain kinds of work. Hence the “smirking headlines and punny scorn” which Grant excoriates: if stripping is regarded as a uniquely illegitimate profession, then strippers are not legitimate workers. And if they’re not legitimate workers, then they’re not entitled to the rights that other workers (many of whom are, coincidentally, white men) enjoy.

You can see the same thing happening in other, more high-profile labor battles. Conservative politicians like Scott Walker will deny that they’re anti-union while carving up teachers’ collective bargaining rights—because public sector unions, and especially teachers’ unions, just don’t count. By the same token, the low-wage workers of Walmart discover that, because many of them are part-timers, they’re not entitled to the benefits and security of “real” workers.

The employees of Spearmint Rhino should be lauded for their refusal to accept that reasoning at face value. 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.


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