the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Jan 17, 2022
On October 21, during the shooting of the movie Rust, a gun drawn by the film’s star, Alec Baldwin, discharged a live bullet, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounding the film’s director, Joel Souza. As the media reported more in detail about the incident, long-standing grievances of film crew workers also came to light. In fact, on the day of the deadly incident, seven members of the film’s camera crew had walked out in protest of poor on-set safety, including gun and Covid safety—in addition to other complaints such as low pay, delayed payments and lack of adequate accommodations.
Behind its image of luxury and glamor, Hollywood is in fact an industry like any other, organized to maximize profit for the studios by squeezing more work out of its work force. Many of the jobs are not steady, and during the making of a movie it’s common for workers to toil long hours under poor working conditions for many days, and sometimes even weeks, on end.
Hollywood workers have fought against these conditions throughout the history of the movie industry. During these fights, workers have had to confront not only the studios, but also union leaders who colluded with studio bosses.
In the 1930s, as today, movie studios employed a very diverse work force—machinists, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers, office workers, cartoonists, writers, publicists, story analysts, tailors, kitchen staff, set decorators, camera operators, sound engineers, editors, lab workers, and so on. These workers were represented by a myriad of small “craft unions,” each organizing workers in only one particular classification. These craft unions were brought together into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). In theory, this would allow workers to better defend their interests against the big and powerful movie studios, but IATSE itself presented a serious problem for the workers: it was a company union run by gangsters!
Studios paid off the gangsters, and the gangster-controlled IATSE made sure workers continued to produce movies under bad contracts. As workers tried to organize against the studios and IATSE, some of the carpenters, painters, cartoonists and several other crafts working for Hollywood studios left IATSE and formed the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), which affiliated itself with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
In 1943, 77 set decorators broke away from IATSE and joined the CSU. As IATSE fought over the right to represent the 77 decorators, studio bosses stalled the negotiations for the decorators’ contract for 14 months. When the studio bosses also refused to acknowledge the ruling of a federal arbitrator in favor of the CSU, the CSU called a strike in March 1945.
Even though the original dispute involved only 77 set decorators, more than 10,000 studio workers walked out in solidarity, turning the walkout into a major confrontation—not only between the CSU and IATSE, but also between the workers and bosses in the whole movie industry.
The strike was driven by the fighting spirit of rank-and-file studio workers of all kinds of classifications, who were fed up with the studio bosses, as well as union leaders, especially those of the gangster-controlled IATSE. Every day, strikers picketed studios and movie theaters; some of the pickets numbered several hundred people.
IATSE leaders ordered their members to cross the picket lines and go to work—although many did not. The IATSE leadership and studio bosses also launched a campaign of red-baiting to attack the strike, claiming that the strike was led by communists.
Some of the other studio employees, including some movie stars, did not cross picket lines, but many of them did. One of the movie stars who crossed the picket line was Ronald Reagan, the future U.S. president. As for the red-baiting of the strikers, which was common in that time period, Reagan took it up after the strike—in the late 1940s, when he was embarking on a political career.
The strike shut down much of Hollywood’s film production, but the big studios had already been preparing for a strike by producing movies at a break-neck pace during the months leading up to the walkout. The bosses also calculated that they would be able to count on a steady supply of strikebreakers, since the war industries had already begun to lay off workers. In any event, the big studios were determined to break the militancy of the workers, and the strike went on for months.
On the picket lines, company guards and thugs, and police, attacked the strikers. The bloodiest of these attacks happened on October 5, 1945, known as “Black Friday,” at the gates of Warner Brothers’ studios in Burbank near L.A. After some early-morning clashes, about 1,000 strikers and their supporters had gathered at Warner by noon. The picketers countered the chains, pipes, clubs and brass knuckles of thugs, the tear gas of Warner security guards, high-pressure water from the fire hoses of Warner firemen, and the batons of 300 police and sheriff’s deputies with stones, bottles and overturned cars. After two hours of battle, about 45 injuries were reported. In the following week there was more fighting at Warner, even if not as violent as on Black Friday, and hundreds of picketers ended up in jail during what the strikers called “the War for Warner Brothers.”
After Black Friday, the bosses agreed to settle the dispute. Not only had they been losing millions of dollars, but they worried that the brutal attacks on picketers, widely publicized in the media, would generate public sympathy for the strike. The strike ended one month later, with the studios recognizing the strikers’ right to return to their jobs.
The militant struggles of the 1940s, carried out by rank-and-file Hollywood workers, had a real chance to succeed, because so many workers participated in them and because they were supported by many others in the industry, including many IATSE members. And also because these struggles were not isolated in one industry—they happened in a time period that saw the highest number of strikes in U.S. history. In 1946 alone, there were 4,630 strikes in the U.S. involving 5 million workers. The average length of the strikes was 24 days, pointing to the militant mood among workers, who demanded better pay and working conditions after a general wage freeze and speed-up during the war years.
In the movie industry, the 1945 strike pushed back the studio bosses’ attack. But a year later, the bosses went on the offensive again, just like the whole capitalist class was doing in the whole country. In September 1946, the studios locked out the workers represented by the CSU and replaced them with scabs organized by IATSE.
The red-baiting in the movie industry continued in the following years. Studios attacked those whose actions or opinions ran counter to the bosses’ agenda. Many writers, directors and actors were denied assignments, and this de facto Hollywood blacklist lasted well into the 1960s.
Today, the companies that produce content for movies, television, the internet and streaming channels are among the richest and most profitable in the world. But that means the vast army of the workers who actually do the work are exploited to the max. They still face the same basic conditions that workers throughout the economy face. The only way to change things is to organize together and fight.