Labor groups usually fight for retirement and dental plans, but a group of Philadelphia workers want somewhere to hang their clothes while they work — in the nude.

The Philadelphia Models Guild was established by art school models fed up with unacceptable work conditions. However, unlike blue-collar workers who block gates, picket and chant for rights, the guild is trying to open up communication lines between models and the schools where they pose for art students.

"Conditions at some schools were deteriorating," said model Claire Hankins, one of the guild's founders. "We wanted to build an independent federation to maintain our independence and protect our rights."

Nude and portrait models earn around $9.50 to $12 per hour, but the guild is fighting for at least a $15 hourly rate. "We want a decent living wage," Hankins said, "so models wouldn't have to decide whether to pay rent or eat or get health insurance."

And the guild meetings have given models the chance to air other concerns, such as leering tour-takers.

"The schools had an open door policy. While models were working, prospective students and their families would come by on tours," said Hankins, 39. "Some of us, particularly female models, got very upset. It's not just a matter of poor respect but of personal safety. We don't know who's on these tours."

The improved conditions the guild hopes to achieve include a private changing area other than the school's public bathrooms, heaters for models, clean working areas, well-ventilated studios, clean drapes to stand or sit on (some schools make models bring their own drapes, Hankins said) and firm rubber pads to stand on to support the ankles and feet.

Models have to hold a position for 20-minute intervals for classes that range from three to six hours long. The same pose can be used in a 15-week class, said Hankins, which makes proper conditions vital for the model's health.

Jennifer Baker, model coordinator at Moore College of Art, worked as a model for over five years until her body was so damaged by the work she had to quit.

"My knees started giving out," she said. "It's painful, particularly some of the standing poses which are really bad on the knees."

Model Mark Brakeman agrees that it's more difficult than commonly thought. "Some people think that all you do is just stand there and don't move, but you have to come up with poses you think the students will like to draw, that are artistically satisfying and educationally challenging."

Baker, who now works fully clothed and is not a member of the guild, said modeling is tough, but doesn't blame the schools. She said during her years of modeling she "didn't find any problems at the schools."

Brakeman, 45, whose primary source of income is modeling, got involved with the guild not only to improve conditions, but also to improve models' public image.

"We would like to look better in the eyes of the public, not just be seen as (a job) done on the side to make money like washing dishes," he said.

Hankins has drafted a handbook for models, which she said includes the "good the bad and the ugly" of the business. Another guild member writes a newsletter to keep people abreast of nude modeling developments.

While the subject matter is ripe for ribbing, the models say they deserve as much courtesy as any other profession.

"I can understand them wanting to be treated with respect and have a comfortable environment," said Baker. "It's really helpful that I was a model, you can't understand until you get up there yourself and do it. I know from speaking to other model coordinators that they think (the guild) is good."  

The guild draws about 30 members to its monthly meetings, and the leaders are confident they can improve the profession.

"We're trying to build a strong community, but models are so transient — and a lot are scared that they might lose work if they get involved," Hankins said. "I'm willing to take the risk, and a lot of others are too."