Culture

Resistance at Work: Queer Employees at NYC Sex Toy Stores Organize a Union

A sex toy store in New York City did something radical beyond making sure everyone has access to kinky toys: they are helping queer labor protections.

By: Cole Stangler

The Pleasure Chest isn’t your typical workplace. 

Employees at the sex toy store’s two New York City locations are mostly queer—many of them trans and gender non-conforming. And in late June, they did something few retail workers across the country dare to do: they formed a union, voting 16-0 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“We want more safety and stability for ourselves,” says Sloan Eckhardt, a four-year-veteran and sex specialist at the West Village store, which sells everything from blue raspberry flavored lube and anal beads to “feathers and nipple clamps”.

“I think that in the current political environment,” Eckhardt continues, “one that’s hostile to women, queer people, transgender people, immigrants, people of color, and Muslims, just the fact that a group of queer people want to get together and create more stability and safety for ourselves, it’s not separate from that [environment].”

By uniting at the workplace, Pleasure Chest employees aren’t just bringing the much-heralded “resistance” to President Trump and to what’s arguably one of its most overlooked arenas. They also mark a rare—and resounding—success story for a U.S. labor movement that has long struggled to gain a foothold in the retail sector.
 
The campaign kicked off last year, propelled by the sorts of issues retail workers face nationwide: low pay and inconvenient, unpredictable scheduling.

“For years now, we’ve been told there’s just no way to solve the challenge of people being unable to call out sick or take vacation or take personal days without putting the store and our co-workers in a bind in terms of the schedule,” says Eckhardt, who identifies as a non-binary trans person and prefers the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them.’ “I don’t believe that. And most of us do not believe that this challenge is unsolvable.”

Eckhardt and their colleagues also face a set of issues specific to the work they do—and ones closely intertwined with their various identities as sexual and racial minorities.

If retail workers across the country are accustomed to a certain amount of disrespect from clients, then queer ones of color selling sex toys suffer from it at especially amplified levels. Pleasure Chest employees told INTO they often deal with homophobic and transphobic verbal abuse; they described incidents of co-workers being hit on by clients; they also say they regularly have to confront intoxicated customers.

LeNair Xavier, 46, a customer assistant at the Upper East Side store, recalled one instance of especially drunken shoppers.

“I had this couple in—you could smell the alcohol on them like it was their new perfume,” says Xavier, who is a black man. “The girl was talking about going in the corner and putting the toy on. You could tell she wasn’t really kidding. He tried to be all macho, like ‘That’s my lady, you gonna help us out or what?’ I said, ‘Yeah that’s your lady, that’s not my problem, that’s on you.’”

Eventually, a manager overheard and intervened. And while Xavier has since taught himself to stay calm and lower his voice in these types of situations, he says they’re all too common.

In response, staffers say they’ve repeatedly asked management to hold trainings on security and de-escalation measures—but without success. As a result, the demand became a pillar of the union campaign.

While queerness is not a job requirement, the work tends to attract a certain kind of sexually and politically-inclined person. That means tight bonds tend to exist among staff. And it means the foundations of a successful union campaign were already well in place before it officially took off.

“They hired very politically savvy, forward-thinking, mostly radical queer people who were left-leaning,” says Eckhardt. “This is a staff of people who are inspired by courageous examples of resistance to oppression, from our past and from our present. And then, we too believe in sorting out nonsense from reality.”

While Pleasure Chest management also exudes a progressive vision—of the bedroom, at least—it did not react positively to the union campaign.

After employees asked the company to voluntarily recognize the union, it declined to do so, instead forcing a federally-supervised election through the National Labor Relations Board. In the run-up to the vote, bosses enlisted the services of notorious anti-union forces—the employer-side law firm Jackson Lewis and the anti-union consulting firm Labor Relations Institute—both of them widely and more popularly known in the labor world as “union-busters.” By all accounts, these efforts backfired.

Workers say they attended 10 hours of mandatory anti-union meetings pitched as “information sessions,” sitting through presentations that included dubious statistics, graphics, and charts. Before one gathering at the West Village store, according to employees, a consultant with LRI announced that he was going to misgender workers and apologized for doing so in advance.

“What a sensible person would’ve done under the circumstances was ask!” says Eckhardt. “It just shows they didn’t know anything about us…If anyone had been on the fence about voting ‘yes’ to the union, the anti-union campaign solidified those votes.”

In a statement following the election, Pleasure Chest defended its employment practices and rejected charges that it is not doing enough to protect employee safety.

“We support our workers and will engage in negotiations with the union in good faith,” the company said. “We also strongly value the integrity of our business, which we have spent the past 46 years building, and we will continue to work hard to maintain our core values, progressive principles, and our company mission.”

Representatives from the Labor Relations Institute did not respond to requests for comment.

In any case, the campaign shines a light on the largely unorganized retail sector at large. Just 4.3 percent of workers in retail trade belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half the already meager national union membership rate. The absence of a significant presence in the growing sector weighs heavily on a labor movement that has lost density for decades and anxiously seeks relevance in the twenty-first century.

“Since this is a growing sector of the labor market, yes, it’s vital for unions to grow there if they are going to survive,” says Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and expert on the U.S. labor movement.

For the New York City-based RWDSU, which also represents workers at department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, the Pleasure Chest campaign wasn’t its first venture into sex toy retail. Last May, the union won an election to represent workers at three Babeland stores in New York City, the first sex toy shops in the country to organize.

“We’re going to continue organizing retail workers who want a union,” says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum when asked if the union has plans at other sex toy stores. “And we’re going to encourage workers at other adult entertainment to consider the advantage of working in an organized environment.”

That would be quite alright with Eckhardt.

“I don’t want to benefit at the expense of anyone else,” they say. “I actually would like to see more of retail to become unified, for retail workers to be respected and to be paid fairly for what we do, whether that’s here at the Pleasure Chest or Walmart or Starbucks or Whole Foods or Amazon, all these other places.”