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Labor Strife, Politics, and the Resurgence of IATSE

csu hollywood studios strike

Besides the market-related postwar crises, Hollywood faced a number of other industrial and political crises as well. Labor unrest was among the most important and underrated of them. As discussed in chapter 5, the Hollywood labor scene was relatively quiet through most of the war era before flaring up in an early 1945 jurisdictional dispute between the industry’s two dominant labor organizations, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). That conflict led to an eight-month CSU strike, which was resolved in October through the efforts of the MPAA’s president, Eric Johnston. Thus, the industry looked to postwar labor conditions with guarded optimism, and in fact, the Motion Picture Herald ran a headline in January 1946 boldly asserting: “Labor Amity on Coast Assured for the Future.”

At that point, Hollywood’s labor arena comprised 43 distinct craft and talent groups, most of which fell under the purview of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Twothirds of Hollywood’s 30,000 studio employees belonged to craft unions associated with either IATSE or the CSU (both of which were in the AFL). IATSE was the larger and more powerful of the two, with an estimated 12,000 Hollywood members in 13 locals, Page 304  most of which were involved in the production of films. IATSE had another 50,000 members outside Hollywood; indeed, the IATSE membership of virtually all projectionists in the United States continued to be IATSE’s trump card in negotiations with the studios. 63 The CSU, created five years earlier when IATSE was mired in scandal, developed under Herb Sorrell’s leadership as a viable challenger to IATSE’s dominance over the Hollywood labor scene. By 1946, the Hollywood-based CSU boasted 7,000 members in 12 locals, most of them involved in pre-production crafts (carpenters, set designers, painters, and so on).

Hollywood’s other significant labor contingent comprised the talent guilds—the screen actors, directors, and writers guilds, along with the American Federation of Musicians. While all of these organizations attempted to steer clear of the IATSE-CSU dispute, they inevitably were caught in the crossfire and eventually were drawn in, most notably the Screen Actors Guild in league with IATSE and the Screen Writers Guild with the CSU.

Management in postwar Hollywood was represented by three groups, the most powerful of which was, without question, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP), the major studio-distributors’ trade outfit which was presided over by the ubiquitous Eric Johnston (also president of the MPAA and the MPEA). The industry’s two dozen or so major independent producers were represented by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP), while the minor independents like Monogram and PRC had their own trade outfit and labor negotiator, the Independent Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA).

“Movie labor is like nothing else in the labor world,” Fortune magazine asserted in 1946. Hollywood’s labor scene was indeed both volatile and complex, owing to the virtually complete unionization of its workers, the high economic stakes involved (in terms of salaries and wages), and the ongoing struggle between IATSE and the CSU. 65 That struggle had scarcely been resolved with the October 1945 settlement, which in fact had only fanned the flames of jurisdictional conflict. Johnston had won peace among the warring factions by convincing the studios to let the striking CSU workers return to work, while continuing to employ the 1,000 or so set erectors who had replaced the carpenters during the strike. A similar compromise was reached with striking machinists, so there too the studios were employing two workers for every job.

This had led to padded payrolls, gross inefficiency, and endless jurisdictional hassles, with workers arguing over whether a boat was a set or a prop, or whether costumers or makeup artists were responsible for the padding in an actress’s undergarments. The conflict went much deeper, of course. As Fortune aptly noted in an in-depth piece on Hollywood labor, “Jurisdiction increases fantastically the size of the standing labor force required” for film production. This tendency intensified the rampant “feather-bedding” whereby union contracts required the presence on the set of paid employees who, in effect, did nothing. The studios, meanwhile, seemed resigned to the impasse, leading the Wall Street Journal to observe in mid-1946, “By nurturing this rivalry, [the studios] have finally achieved what is described as the ‘worst’ and ‘most complicated’ labor situation in the country.”

While the CSU’s Sorrell pressed for a resolution to the impasse, the studios balked, for two reasons: first, the producers did not want to jeopardize their long-standing (and generally favorable) relations with the IATSE unions; and second, Sorrell was pressing for substantial wage increases. 67 A series of walkouts and continued pressure convinced the IMPPA (Monogram and PRC) to agree to a 25 percent pay hike in June 1946, retroactive to 1 January, but still the majors held out. In July, a two-day "quickie " strike brought them around, and in what became known as “the treaty of Beverly Hills,” the AMPP agreed to a 25 percent wage hike.

The wage hikes put CSU members among the nation’s highest-paid salaried workers, but the strike settlement did not resolve the jurisdictional conflicts. In September, the ongoing flap over IATSE set erectors and CSU carpenters led to a full-scale CSU strike against the AMPP. 69 With this interminable squabble over some seventy-five carpenters taking thousands out of work and throwing studio production into turmoil, much of the CSU’s credibility and industry support began to erode. A key factor was an effort by the Screen Actors Guild to broker a settlement on behalf of the AFL (with which it also was affiliated). SAG, by now clearly the leading labor organization in Hollywood, abandoned that effort in October and voted to publicly denounce the CSU—an action that was endorsed by twenty-four other Hollywood unions. In November, SAG issued a “Report to the Motion Picture Industry” which stated: “The Guild board reluctantly has been forced to the conclusion that certain of the leaders of the CSU do not want the strike settled.” The producers also began to publicly disparage the CSU, arguing that only three hundred jobs were really at issue and that the vast majority of its members did not support the strike. But the CSU stood firm, and in December a pro-CSU rally was held with a sizable turnout at the Hollywood Legion Stadium.

IATSE, meanwhile, proved much more adept at maneuvering through the troubled postwar waters. Much of its success was due to Roy Brewer, IATSE’s West Coast head who had arrived in early 1945, sent by the IATSE president, Richard Walsh, at the outset of the first CSU strike. Brewer represented a new breed of IATSE labor leader, without the taint of racketeer associations or big-city labor struggles. He had started in the picture business as a projectionist in Nebraska, and while still in his early twenties (in 1933), he became one of the nation’s youngest state-level labor leaders. By the mid-1940s, Brewer was a rising star in the IATSE hierarchy, and he quickly proved himself after his arrival in Hollywood. Indeed, the 1945 strike provided valuable experience for the young labor leader, and in the ensuing labor crises Brewer put that experience to very good use.

Brewer’s success and IATSE’s postwar resurgence turned on several strategic factors, notably favorable relations with the major studios and the Screen Actors Guild, and Brewer’s savvy exploitation of the growing anti-Communist fervor. As in the 1945 strike, IATSE supplied replacements for most of the striking CSU workers during the 1946 walkout. This time, in fact, the studios were counting on it, having conducted secret negotiations with IATSE while the CSU was threatening to strike. Thus, the studios and IATSE effectively joined forces against the CSU, whose militancy disturbed the producers and whose very existence posed a threat to IATSE. 72 And despite the “natural” enmity between labor and management, the alliance between the studios and IATSE was really no surprise given their history of “cooperation” (legal or otherwise) over the previous decade. Brewer also forged an alliance with SAG, based largely on the anti-Communist sentiments he shared with the guild leadership.

in fact, as the labor strife intensified, Brewer took advantage of the anti-Communist climate through two related tactics: flagrant red-baiting of the CSU, with Herb Sorrell as his primary (and admittedly vulnerable) target; and appeals on behalf of IATSE to the studios and the guilds to form an anti-Communist coalition in Hollywood. Brewer found a valuable ally in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), the organization of right-wing filmmakers—Sam Wood, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, et al.—formed in 1944 to counter Hollywood’s left-liberal drift. The Alliance not only responded to Brewer’s overtures but accepted him into the fold, eventually making him president of the organization.

By 1947, Brewers red-baiting of Sorrell and his crusade to root out industry subversives began to pay off. The general sentiment in the industry—and elsewhere—was turning against Sorrell and the red-tainted CSU, and political pressures mounted nationwide against left-leaning and strike-oriented organized labor. Congress was now involved, both directly through the pending House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of Hollywood subversives, and indirectly through the Taft-Hartley Act, which became law in August. Essentially a revision of the 1935 Wagner Labor Relations Act, the Taft-Hartley Act required loyalty oaths of union members and outlawed both wildcat and jurisdictional strikes. Meanwhile, the HUAC hearings were scheduled for late October, and the committee’s agenda was clearly anti-labor as well as anti-red. The upcoming hearings put enormous pressure on the striking CSU unions, which began returning to work, settling individually with the studios and abandoning the CSU. In late October 1947, days before the HUAC hearings, Sorrell’s own painters union voted to cross the picket lines, effectively finishing the CSU.

Thus, by 1948, IATSE had regained control of organized labor in Hollywood, and the industry reverted to a more routine process of labor-management discord over salaries Page 307  and working conditions. IATSE would continue to win wage concessions from the studios, although as wages increased the total number of union employees in Hollywood fell dramatically. Thomas F. Brady of the New York Times in late 1949 noted that IATSE had “established undisputed jurisdiction in its field,” but also that Hollywood’s overall cost-cutting efforts had been paid for primarily by labor, “not in wage levels, but in the amount of employment.” And indeed, union employment in the film production sector had fallen from 22,000 in 1946 to 13,500 in 1949.

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