1936 Union Alert about Runaway Production (prior to it’s being named)

            For a fuller history of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) I suggest starting with Mike Neilsen’s and Gene Mailes’s book Hollywood’s Other Blacklist. Union Struggles in the Hollywood System (British Film Institute 2008).  This book, among others, documents the IATSE history as a “sweet heart” union–its leadership compromised by being in the pay of the motion picture studios and by its relationship with organized crime.

            Given the IATSE’s compromised status with the studios and organized crime, it is noteworthy that in 1936, IATSE Second Vice-President William Covert publicly protested producers going to foreign countries to evade “union wages and conditions.”  He was speaking mostly about the “quota quickies” still being made in England. According to IATSE meeting minutes, in June 12, 1936, Covert raised the issue during the report of the General Executive Board at a meeting held at the Muehlebach Hotel, in Kansas City, Missouri:

“FOREIGN PICTURE PRODUCTION:  Second Vice-President William P. Covert called the attention of the General Executive Board to a condition pertaining to the increase in emigration by recognized producers to foreign countries for the purpose of evading Union wages and conditions, citing England in particular.  Some producers engage qualified cameramen, studio workers, etc. in this country and then take them abroad to perform the necessary service, while others rely upon those employed in the craft in European countries.  Pictures are produced at an extremely low figure, making it practically prohibitive for American-made pictures to compete with those made on the other side.

“It was determined by the members of the Board that the only successful method that could be employed to combat the expansion and perpetuation of such a condition would be through its control by a tariff law.  The matter was left entirely in the hands of President [George] Browne to use his best endeavors in an effort to effect some progress toward this end” (Proceedings of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada. Thirty-Fourth Convention, Cleveland Public Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio, June 6 – 9, (from June 12, 1936 Kansas City meeting). 

           While little is known of Covert beyond his status as a career IATSE insider who served in IATSE administration from 1919 to 1950 (according to the iatse-intl.org website in 2007), it is reasonable to speculate that perhaps he was emboldened by the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 which “reaffirmed the right of workers to organize” (Nicholson, Phillip Yale Labor’s Story in the United States, 2004:214) and by the organization of other Hollywood workers, and perhaps because he was responding to a situation so dire that even with his union’s compromised status, he had to say something. 

           Workers, specifically labor represented by the IATSE, had an unmentioned advantage.  The IATSE has for most of its lifespan played a “sweetheart” role—that is, they are known for being an undemocratic union in the pockets of the producers (Neilsen Mailes  1995:105). For that reason, over the IATSE’s hundred-plus-year history, union representatives have only spoken out if there’s something of great significance to their members, like for example, overwhelming unemployment.  During this phase, the runaway production issue threatened the existence of the workers by removing the source of their livelihood. So, when the IATSE representatives spoke up, all the players knew their grievance was substantive.    If you know of an earlier reference, please let me know.

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