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