Thursday, February 06, 2003
Strippers charge Cheetahs with labor violation
By Lynnette Curtis
Topless dancer Kristina Tolman was supposed to start working toward a computer science degree at UNLV this semester. Instead, she'll use her tuition money to hire a lawyer.
Tolman, 29, has filed a complaint against Cheetahs Topless Cabaret after a Jan. 9 incident in which she says she was drugged, robbed, threatened and arrested on her way home from work. She's suspicious about the timing of the arrest, which came less than a week after her photograph appeared in dozens of newspapers alongside an Associated Press article detailing the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance's efforts to organize local strippers. Tolman serves as the Alliance's director of county operations. She says club managers are trying to intimidate her into stopping her fight for more rights for exotic dancers.
Tolman is a petite, fragile-looking woman who has been dancing at Cheetahs and other local strip clubs for about five years. Her voice becomes animated when she discusses her belief that she may have been drugged and someone at the club may have conspired with police to have her arrested as she walked along Wyoming Avenue after completing her afternoon shift. "Someone spiked one of my drinks at work," Tolman alleges. "I don't remember leaving the club. I don't remember walking half the way."
Tolman says three police cars surrounded her. "I have never gotten in trouble," she says. "Why would cops just surround me on a deserted street? I was scared to death. They didn't read me my rights and didn't tell me why I was under arrest." What's worse, Tolman says, is that the arresting officer verbally abused her, repeatedly calling her a "cock-sucking crack whore."
Tolman also claims someone at the club or police stole her day's earnings. The "Inmate Personal Property and Money Inventory" she received upon booking indicates she had no money or identification on her when she was taken into custody. "I had money," Tolman says. "I never leave work without two or three hundred [dollars]. Either the cops took it or [someone] got it out of my locker."
About 13 hours after her arrest, Tolman says she was told she had been charged with jaywalking and resisting arrest. "I wasn't doing either," she says.
Repeated calls to Metro Police's public information office seeking comment about Tolman's claims were not returned. But according to a copy of the police report provided by Tolman, the dancer was "standing in the dark portion" of an alley with an unidentified male, and both "immediately tryed (sic) to avoid" the arresting officer, "as if they were involved in something illegal." The police report goes on to state that the arresting officer informed Tolman "of the laws regarding prostitution," and that Tolman "became hostile and began screaming." Tolman eventually "walked to the middle of the street and began screaming at vehicles" that "had to go around Tolman in order to avoid hitting her." Finally, the report says, Tolman resisted arrest, "trying to get away."
Tolman denies any involvement in prostitution, and says she was simply asking the unidentified man for directions to the nearest bus stop. She says she's not familiar with the area and was planning to take the bus only because her regular driver didn't show up at Cheetahs on time. She says she didn't become hostile until after she was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. "I didn't understand why they were arresting me," she says. "That's when I got upset."
After her release, Tolman returned to Cheetahs to pick up her belongings. That's when she says a club manager threatened her. "They told me never to talk about the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance at work," she says. Tolman and Alliance President Andrea Hackett then filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the club with unfair labor practices. Besides unlawfully threatening an employee, the complaint charges Cheetahs with confiscating and destroying pamphlets promoting the LVDA, and unlawfully creating the impression that employees' activities are under surveillance.
"Our fliers were ripped up," Hackett says. "When [Tolman] returned to Cheetahs, they watched her like a hawk. Two managers got on their cells phones and followed her out to the parking lot."
Cheetahs managers referred calls for comment to their promotions director, Mike Beezley, who did not return repeated calls for comment. Calls to Cheetahs attorney Pete Christiansen and owner Mike Galardi also were not returned.
Hackett calls what happened to Tolman "very suspicious." "First Ms. Tolman's picture is plastered in papers across the world identifying her as a member of Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, then suddenly she's drugged, arrested, her money is `lost' while in police custody, and she's told to keep silent about a labor organization that's trying to organize Cheetahs dancers. The whole thing smacks of intimidation." Hackett alleges that club owners have close ties with police, and "the fact that [Tolman] was told never to mention the Alliance at work is clearly a violation."
Tolman's run-in with the police is just the latest in what has become a long string of bad luck for the dancer. She says she ran away from home at 15 because of a "troubled relationship" with her mother. She later joined the Army and had a brief marriage that ended because of her husband's drug abuse and infidelity. Tolman decided to become a dancer after going to strip clubs with her former husband. "[Dancers] made more money in a day than I did in a month in the Army," she says.
Now Tolman lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Cambridge Street and Twain Avenue. She says she has clear-cut goals for the future. "I'm going to go to school. I plan to buy a house in two years," she says.
The LVDA received substantial press coverage in recent months after Hackett staged a protest against new county regulations limiting the amount of touching between strippers and customers during lap dances. The Alliance is also fighting to have dancers--who are classified as independent contractors--reclassified as club employees. "Club owners have control over hiring and firing us, how we dress, our schedule, music and everything, then they call us independent contractors," Hackett says. "They don't have to operate like normal employers. Unless we're employees, we have no protection under the law."
Though she has in the past denied any desire to form a dancers union, Hackett now admits it's a possibility. "We're trying to organize along labor lines, yes," she says.
Tolman, meanwhile, has quit her job at Cheetahs and is dancing at Déją Vu. "I'm totally for a dancers union," she says. "I know these girls. A lot of them don't know their rights. They need breaks and health insurance. If they get sick or break a leg, they're out on the street giving blowjobs."