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How The Bloody Hollywood Strike Of 1945 Forever Changed The Film Business

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE
"Immobilized, I watched the scene a few feet away. Goons and replacements smashing people's heads, faces, bodies; deputy sheriffs and cops knocking down men," writes one witness of the October 1945 strike in front of Warner Bros. Studios.
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October 5, 1945 was an unseasonably hot autumn day in Burbank. Outside Warner Bros. Studios, members of the Conference of Studio Unions, which represented approximately 10,500 studio painters, carpenters and other crew members, had gathered at dawn. Inspired by CSU's eight-month long strike, launched so the organization could represent set decorators instead of rival union IATSE, aspiring actress Elaine Spiro decided to join the picketers.

Police officers are shown standing in the street while most of the picketers are crowded on the sidewalk around the building. Police are wearing light-colored hard hats and shoulder bags, and trash can be seen strewn in the street.
October 10, 1945: Officers close in, surrounding the pickets outside Warner Bros.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

"As 5:30 a.m. approached, people on the line began to buzz in low tones, anxiously watching the [WB] building," she recalled in Hollywood Strike- October 1945: A Reminiscence. "At 5:30 came the signal. The American flag shot up on the west roof, some of our people began to sing the 'Star Spangled Banner'… Almost simultaneously, fiery flares flew towards our heads. They really frightened me."

The man is shown in front of a building. Several other men are in the background, some with white hard hats.
October 9, 1945: A man, cornered by his opponents, raises his arms for protection during one of the many battles during the protests outside Warner Bros.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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All hell broke loose as police officers, security guards and scabs attacked the strikers, leading to one of the most violent brawls in Hollywood history.

"Immobilized, I watched the scene a few feet away. Goons and replacements smashing people's heads, faces, bodies; deputy sheriffs and cops knocking down men; a girl wearing a white hard-hat and red-cross arm band pushed down onto the pavement by a replacement, twisting her arm behind her back; the cops dragging people to the paddy wagon; three cops beating up a bleeding man lying on the ground," Spiro writes.

She has a Red Cross band on her left wrist and is wearing a Red Cross hard hat. A restaurant, the Ideal Cafe, can be seen in the background. A picket sign reads "U.S. Govt. exposes producer-IATSE tie-up!" Warner Brothers studio is located in Burbank, California.
October 17, 1945: Martha MacLane is dragged away from the picket line in front of Warner Bros. by police officers. Herbert K. Sorrell, who has been directing the walkout, shouted over the loud speaker: "You have done a fine job. Keep peaceful, get some rest while you're sitting down."
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

This fateful day would come to be known as "Bloody Friday." In the definitive Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950, Gerald Horne writes:

"Dozens were injured in a melee at the entrance to Warner Bros. studio in Burbank as strikers confronted scabs and police officers. Some among the hundreds of strikers and their supporters were 'knifed, clubbed and gassed,' while others were swept off their feet by spray from fire hoses. The glass of smashed windshields littered the pavement. There were 'tear gas bomb blasts' and overturned cars. Periodic fistfights at times engaged a dozen men or more." 
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That morning at Warner Bros. was the most brutal conflict between billion-dollar studios and the people who keep them running but it was hardly the last. The struggle between Hollywood's controlling business interests and everyday laborers continues, most recently with the narrowly avoided IATSE strike, which would have crippled the film and TV industry.

Two policemen in hard hats are standing over the man and several other people can be seen in the background.
October 9, 1945: A man, injured during a new flareup of fighting in the film strike at Warner Bros. Studios, lies in the street, with his face down.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

"When we think about movies, we don't think about it as work. We think about it as magic," says scholar Ronny Regev, author of Working in Hollywood.

That's part of what attracts people to this industry. Producers know it and they leverage the disconnect between the shimmering final product and the treatment of workers so they can continue lining their pockets. Welcome to Hollywood's dream factory. Don't peak behind the curtain.

Making movies and television requires hard labor and plenty of it. The industry is built on obscenely long hours, unsafe working conditions, wild pay disparities and unsteady employment.

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"Behind the picture of opulence presented by the industry wage charts stretches a vast sea of men and women of all crafts and abilities striving… for more constant employment in an industry which can only use a fraction of them even at capacity production," Anthony A. P. Dawson writes.

Does that sound like it was written last week? It comes from Hollywood's Labor Troubles, which Dawson published in 1948.

A crowd is gathered in the street in front of a light-colored car. A restaurant, Angelo's Cafe, can be seen across the street. Several other buildings and trees can be seen in the background. Picket signs read "End lockout says U.S. Govt. to producers."
October 16, 1945: Strikers at Warner Bros. are shown turning back a car (arrow) which attempted to go through the gate. 500 people gathered and stopped numerous cars attempting to enter the gate.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The entertainment industry's unregulated working conditions were already a problem in the Victorian era. In 1893, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees began organizing people who worked behind the scenes in live theater. At that point, filmmaking technology was in its infancy and L.A.'s movie industry was non-existent. New York, with its Broadway theaters, cabarets and vaudeville houses, was the entertainment capital of the country.

"It starts in New York. It doesn't start in LA. It starts with the theater. IATSE has the interest of including as many professions as possible under its umbrella. That way they can just shut down the entire industry," Regev says.

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By 1905, IATSE had begun to organize crew members in the burgeoning film industry, according to Regev. Two years later, IATSE had an office in Los Angeles. Local chapters sprung up, from Chicago to San Francisco.

IATSE asserted its power in the growing film industry by waging small strikes in Hollywood in 1918, 1919 and 1921. In 1926, the union reached its first agreement with the entertainment industry. According to the 2018 Official IATSE Bulletin, the deal, called the "Studio Basic Agreement," was "not so much a contract but an agreement to negotiate wages, benefits, hours and working conditions, as well as grievances."

In the nearly 100 years since then, IATSE has never gone on strike.

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE
June 29, 1945: Strikers in picket line at the entrance of Paramount Studios carry signs in many languages.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Spurred by the liberal, pro-union Roosevelt administration, "above the line" workers such as actors, directors and writers began organizing their own unions in the 1930s, forcing the studios to recognize them.

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE
October 6, 1945: Some of the strikers were equipped with gas masks to avoid tear gas. George Glass is shown trying on his gas mask.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

"For actors, directors and writers, it's really a New Deal story. They were not unionized before. There were some attempts but mostly unsuccessful ones due to the fact that studios refused to recognize them. The management always objects to unionization. It doesn't matter if it's in automobiles, iron. It's just that at that point in time, you had the government on the side of unions," Regev says.

The Screen Actors Guild and Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) were founded in 1933. The Directors Guild of America followed in 1936. But their interests often weren't aligned with IATSE or its workers.

With the exception of the more progressive WGA, these guilds didn't show much solidarity with their below-line counterparts. (Ironically, when SAG went on strike in 1960 to fight for residuals, it was led by actor Ronald Reagan who, as President of the United States, would in 1981 fire thousands of air traffic controllers for striking.)

"Another key we have here… is that they actually call themselves guilds, which is a very telling sign, that you don't want to be called a union. At the end of the day, they ended up being a bit more conservative and not really supporting other strikes," Regev says.

Several men and a restaurant, the Ideal Cafe, are in the background.
October 12, 1945: Mary Jones is escorted by two policeman down a street near Warner Bros. studios in Burbank.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

During the 1930s, as the studio system became a well-oiled, exploitative machine, IATSE membership boomed. But the meteoric growth had a dark side.

By 1934, a crime syndicate associated with the now-jailed Al Capone had effectively taken over IATSE, installing former pimp Willie Bioff and corrupt stagehand George Browne as its leaders. The two men allegedly made deals between the studios and the mob, extorting industry leaders to avoid labor unrest, according to Regev.

IATSE's corruption wasn't lost on Hollywood's day laborers.

In 1937, approximately 6,000 scenic artists, make-up artists, draftsmen and other movie workers joined forces to form the Federation of Motion Picture Crafts. Demanding recognition from the studios, they went on strike for two months in an attempt to break away from IATSE's crooked leadership. Other unions, including SAG, refused to back them. Worse still, IATSE and the studios sent mobsters and members of the LAPD to attack strikers and picketers. The FMPC folded as quickly as it had formed.

IATSE would soon face its own reckoning.

In 1941, Bioff and Browne were arrested. They were eventually convicted of extortion and sent to jail along with Johnny Roselli, the mob fixer responsible for coordinating the relationship between IATSE and the studios. The sordid details of the union's deal with the devil had become public knowledge.

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE Herb Sorrell
October 13, 1945: Standing in the center and sporting a black eye CSU president Herbert K. Sorrell talks with Deputy Chief Henry Eaton. He said Columbia was chosen as a site for mass picketing when he flipped a coin to decide whether it would be that studio or Paramount. Eventually many of the major studios, including Columbia and Paramount, would be affected by this strike.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

That same year, disillusioned movie workers formed the Conference of Studio Unions, led by pugnacious former boxer and studio painter Herb Sorrell. "I am not smart… I am just a dumb painter," Sorrell claimed, portraying himself as a working class everyman. Enticed by promises of democratic leadership and true bargaining action, many IATSE members left to join CSU.

IATSE didn't take these defections lying down. The union and the studios ginned up claims that liberal CSU had communist sympathies. The accusations weren't true but they would be used against the upstart union for its entire existence.

McCloude is in the passenger seat of a convertible with his head down, the driver is looking at the camera. Several men and women are in the background.
October 17, 1945: An injured picketer, John McCloude, holding his head in his hands, is taken from the Warner Bros. studio strike to a hospital.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Things came to a head in 1943, when the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators affiliated with CSU. IATSE claimed that they had jurisdiction over the set decorators, according to iatse728.org:

An arbitrator was appointed by the War Labor Board in February 1945 who ruled that the producers should recognize Local 1421's claim for jurisdiction over the set decorators. The producers refused, even after the set decorators voted that Local 1421 was their proper bargaining agent. The producers' refusal to bargain is what extended and, in a sense, created the strike of 1945."
The middle of the street is clear, with a large crowd on the opposite side and beyond that group are several buildings and trees. Men can be seen on the roof of one of the buildings, Angelo's Cafe. An ad on the side of the cafe reads "Ben-Hur delicious coffee."
October 10, 1945: After mass arrests, four picketers stand in front of a line of policemen. A traffic signal is on each side of the street.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Fed up with IATSE and the studios' treatment of their workers, CSU called a strike on March 12, 1945. The next day, The Hollywood Reporter described the strike's impact on the industry:

"Nearly 60% of all production was blacked out yesterday, and 12,000 film workers made idle, as members of the Screen Set Designers, Decorators and Illustrators 'hit the bricks' in front of all major studios, and, joined by cardholders in a dozen top industry crafts, precipitated Hollywood's worst labor tie-up in nearly a decade."
The two officers have their backs to the camera and Zander's face is obscured by one of the officers. Several men with smiles on their faces are in the background. Columbia Pictures studios are located in Hollywood.
October 13, 1945: Paul Zander is shown being searched by police officers at the picket line at Columbia Studios, where film strikers set up a mass picket line today. Violence broke out soon after unionists formed a line before the studio gates.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

More than 10,000 CSU workers went on strike, joining the picket lines at the major studios and at theaters. According to Horne, crew members who had worked on movies that were showing in theaters used clever tactics to deter ticket buyers. Outside a screening of Lady on a Train, picketers shouted, "Save your money. We'll tell you all about it. Don't be fooled by Dan Duryea. Ralph Bellamy did it. He's the killer. And David Bruce gets the girl!"

Things quickly turned violent when IATSE members clashed with CSU picketers. Actors in SAG were left to follow their consciences. Progressive stars, such as Bette Davis and Jennifer Jones, refused to cross the picket lines. "I never walk through picket lines myself," Charlie Chaplin said, "and I don't wish anybody to do so while working for me."

A high fence goes the length of the street. The crowd is gathered on the sidewalk and in the street near the guard house at the entrance to the studio. A picket sign reading "A.F.L. picket line" can be seen.
October 13, 1945: Under the watchful eye of police officers, studio workers are shown passing through the picket line at RKO Pathe Studio in Culver City, where mass picketing began today. Approximately 25 employees went through the picket line.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

However, many actors, including Ronald Reagan (already a SAG board member) did cross the lines. The future president painted a grim picture of union unrest. "Homes and cars were bombed. Workers trying to drive into a studio would be surrounded by pickets who'd pull open their car door or roll down a window and yank the worker's arm until they broke it, then say, 'Go on to work, see how much you get done today,'" he recalled, per Horne.

By October, nerves had frayed on all sides. The studios were losing millions of dollars. Work on films including David Selznick's Duel in the Sun and the Cary Grant vehicle Night and Day had slowed down or stopped. There were daily pickets at the major studios. Protestors were often met by armed strike-breakers backed up by the Los Angeles Police Department, which was closely affiliated with the studios.

The picketers are walking the entire length of the building. Policemen can be seen on both sides of the street. Cars are driving down the street and one car with loudspeakers on top is parked on the opposite side. An American flag flies over the building. The wording on the building reads "Warner Brothers West Coast Studios."
October 26, 1945: Hundreds of film strikers march down the street as they stage another demonstration in front of Warner Bros. studio. Warner Brothers studio is located in Burbank, California. Photograph dated
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Inside the studios, the mood swung from despair to decadence, a castle under siege. Arthur Silver, an employee in the trailer department of Warner Bros., was forced to go into work everyday in defiance of the protesters. He told Horne what the atmosphere was like within the studio walls:

"Nothing but crap games and card games at night, and the best of food. Every night the police at the auto gate would tell us when the pickets left so we could drive home and see our families. Then we'd come back at twelve o'clock and the parties would be going on. Some of the guys would get girls in there and some of the actresses would come in. Those parties were wild!"

Studio heads weren't having nearly as much fun as some of their employees. On October 29, 1945, the studios, IATSE and the CSU struck an agreement. All sides proclaimed victory.

"It was a mixed victory," Horne writes. "Yes, CSU was to be deemed the bargaining agent for set decorators but IATSE could still confound the issue by encroaching on the federation's jurisdiction over various studio tasks; and a three-person panel was to decide any jurisdictional issues that the two could not work out themselves. The strikers' replacements were to receive severance pay when released and strikers were to return to their jobs."

A film poster on the truck advertises upcoming 1937 movie, Internes Can't Take Money. Policeman guards the entrance as workers wait outside.
May 5, 1937: During a film strike outside the Bronson Gate to Paramount Pictures studio, a truck is parked in the entrance. That year, 75 set decorators broke away from the IATSE to form their own association, the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators (SMPID) and negotiated an independent contract with the producers. In 1943 they would affiliate with the CSU Local 1421.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The truce was short-lived. Less than a year later, in July 1946, Sorrell and CSU called another strike, which netted workers a 25% pay raise. Their victory would soon prove to be hollow.

In September of that year, a fight between IATSE and CSU over whether IATSE grips or CSU carpenters controlled set building led to the major studios locking out CSU workers. Devised by the studios, IATSE and SAG (now presided over by movie star Robert Montgomery), this lockout effectively forced CSU workers off set without the union ever officially declaring a strike.

Again, there was violence and strife. Publications including the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Citizen News reported on beatings, clubbings, smashed windows, slashed tires, home break-ins and Molotov cocktails. Picketers were arrested en masse and carted off to local jails.

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE
Matha MacLane, who joined the strikers in front of Warner Bros., is shown lying down on an armless couch in a small office with her eyes closed on October 17, 1945.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

In Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950, Horne describes how a group of female picketers kept their spirits up while being held in the Lincoln Park jail. "Girls who thought they would be depressed, found comfort and a spirit of unity through singing. We wrote our own verses to familiar tunes and used them to communicate between cells," one woman recalled.

Along with the post-WWII slump, increased competition from foreign films and the advent of TV, the movie industry was reeling.

"During the period September 26, 1946 to the same date in 1947, there were never any fewer than 4,000 men on strike out of a cumulative total of 31,000 men who were offered jobs during a normal year in the production branch of the industry, 13% of production staff," Dawson writes in Hollywood's Labor Troubles.

HOLLYWOOD 1945 STRIKE
1945: Violators of a court order restricting picketing are arrested by police and escorted into a bus outside RKO Studio. Police also form a blockade as spectators congregate.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

Looking to solve at least one of its problems, the film industry used the lockout to purge studio payrolls of CSU members and those who supported them. As the lockout dragged on into 1947, CSU lost power and fell apart. By the 1950s, CSU had been strangled out of existence, leading to IATSE's resurgence.

A group of men is standing in a driveway, near the guard house at the entrance to a studio. A garage of some sort is to the right and lumber and other buildings can be seen in the background. Two of the men are holding signs that say "Unfair to Local 1421 Painters and Decorators, A. F. L."
March 12, 1945: Strikers are shown picketing one of Hollywood's major studios. More than 15,000 film workers remained away from their jobs as a result of the strike caused by a jurisdictional dispute over 72 set designers.
(Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The repercussions of these labor struggles were felt far and wide. The strikes in Hollywood and across the country led to the passage of the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act (known as the Taft-Hartley Act), which curbed union power and strike tactics. It also encouraged the House Un-American Activities Committee to hold its infamous nine-day hearing on the supposed red menace, leading to the Hollywood blacklist and ruining countless lives.

Major strikes followed including the SAG strike of 1960, the WGA strikes of 1973, 1988 and 2007, and small ones like the three-hour DGA strike of 1987. But never again would the simmering resentment between workers and employers boil over quite the way it did that hot October morning in 1945.

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