“Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950”

Greatest Story Never Told — by the Studios

Review by Charles Walker

Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930–1950, by Gerald Horne (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2001), 331 pp., paperback $22.95.

By May 1945, the month Germany surrendered (followed a few months later by Japan, bringing World War II to a close in August), more than half a million U.S. workers voted for strikes in National Labor Relations Board polls, compared to only 43,000 in the same period of 1944.

These early 1945 polls foreshadowed the 1945–46 strike wave of a combined 5 million strikers, which was rightly called American labor’s greatest upsurge. The chief issue was workers’ standard of living. Although workers “had raised their output per man-hour by 26 per cent during the war years, their average hourly rates had risen only six-tenths of one per cent,” wrote labor journalist and socialist Art Preis in Labor’s Giant Step.

In 1946–47, enraged by organized labor's strike power, bosses and politicians launched a bipartisan counterattack that included the notorious Taft-Hartley Act (“a slave labor act,” said organized labor), along with red-baiting and witch-hunting that led to the ouster of countless union militants from their jobs and unions.

Among the earliest strikers were 10,000 workers in Hollywood's studios. Painters, carpenters, and electricians, set designers, grips, and script clerks were on the bricks three times in 1945–46. Class Struggle in Hollywood is a many-faceted account of those movie studio workers’ decades-long battle with their bosses, as well as with gangsters and strike-breaking unions, primarily the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

At the center of the movie workers' resistance was the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a partially successful attempt to build a united front of studio unions in order to overcome the many centrifugal jurisdictional disputes common to craft unions. Though many AFL unions made up the CSU, the Teamsters did not join, nor did the actors’ and writers’ guilds. The CSU’s top leader was Herbert Sorrell, a militant painters’ union leader who was often called a Communist, a charge that the author disbelieves. If Sorrell had been in the Communist Party, Horne points out, he would have been breaking with the Communists’ wartime no-strike policy. Eventually, the Communists did back the strike, perhaps because of its popularity with the studio workers. (Even some IATSE local unions joined in.)

The immediate cause of the strike was a jurisdictional dispute between CSU and IATSE over representation of set designers and decorators. Although management claimed that it was an innocent bystander, Horne convincingly argues that management was using the dispute to weaken the militant CSU, noting that IATSE’s president, Dick Walsh, later “confessed unabashedly that he collaborated with the [studio] moguls to break the strike.”

Support (and Opposition) from Other Unions

As the strike lengthened, more and more Los Angeles unions offered their support, on and off the picket lines. The Newspaper Guild unanimously voted not to permit their members to handle publicity material from picketed studios.” Longshoremen from San Pedro’s wharves helped beat back scabs attempting to break through mass picket lines. Strike breakers and goons “were armed with chains, bolts, hammers, six-inch pipe, brass knuckles, wooden mallets, and battery cables.” Steel-helmeted county sheriffs were armed with “30-30 Garrand rifles and two were weighted down with an arsenal of tear-gas bombs.”

Teamster chieftain, Joe Tuohy — who “eventually took a lucrative position with the studios” — ordered his members to go through the lines. “There isn't much work,” Tuohy said, “but they get a full week’s pay anyway.” Admitting that his members were driving IATSE recruits inside to replace CSU strikers, Tuohy said: “…this they rebelled against at first…[it was] very embarrassing.” As the lines grew tougher, Tuohy exclaimed that the Teamster ranks “refused to go through under these conditions and I don't blame them because I had a lot of trouble ducking the flying missiles even from my vantage point across the street.”

While many actors continued to work, some stars, such as Bette Davis, Marsha Hunt, John Garfield, Rex Ingram, Joe Louis, and Artie Shaw stood with the strikers.

“By 29 October the strike was settled…the moguls were bent on ousting CSU — they had failed.” Then in July 1946 the CSU called a second strike. This time IATSE observed the picket lines, “and within hours CSU had won a stunning 25 per cent wage increase, along with a thirty-six-hour workweek with time-and-a-half pay for any overtime.”

But the fight wasn’t over. In September 1946, the studios locked out the carpenters, provoking the CSU to walk out. IATSE was bought off with a 25 percent wage deal, Eastern gangsters were imported, cops and goons raided the picket lines, mass arrests were made, and judges ordered pickets to return to the courtrooms each day, keeping hundreds of pickets away from the studios. That didn’t keep some actors, such as John Garfield, Harpo Marx, and Eve Arden from rallying in support of the CSU ranks. But by the middle of 1947, if not before, the CSU membership was beaten down. Token picket lines and legal actions by CSU continued for several years, but the small union federation was defeated.

Reasons for Defeat  

The author, a professor at the University of North Carolina, attributes the CSU defeat to numerous factors, including the end of the “Popular Front” policy of the U.S. Communist Party. (However, Horne fails to acknowledge that the purpose of the so-called Popular Front was to subordinate workers’ and minorities’ struggles to the bosses’ wartime leadership, hence the no-strike pledge.) Other factors he mentions are these: the burgeoning Red Scare (promoted by all the institutions of the ruling class, and building on “patriotic” support for the U.S. role in World War II); the failure of the unions to ally with Blacks, who were seeking to end the studios’ and the unions’ racist refusal to provide fair hiring opportunities for Blacks; and so-called tactical “errors,” such as supporting the low-paid screen extras in their disputes with the Screen Actors Guild.

But the lessons of prewar strikes, under tougher conditions, suggest that what the studio workers needed in order to win was an organized political union leadership, along the lines of the radical and socialist leaderships that led the Teamsters, auto workers, and longshore strikes of 1934, and that later led the historic auto sit-down strikes. In a conversation with this writer, Horne maintained that the CSU was left-led, but admitted that the leftists were not an organized force, but only workers who had been influenced by the IWW and other radical groups.

Horne correctly concludes that “‘Class Struggle in Hollywood’ may be the greatest story never told — by the studios.” Too bad, because an accurate film dramatization of the studio strikes would mean a colorful, dynamic cast of characters and a riveting story line.