The Federation of Motion Picture Crafts (FMPC)
Within this world of fantasy are thousands of workers of all kinds who sweat, and who fight the same bitter struggles as other thousands of workers to secure a decent livelihood.
–Jeff Kibre (Ceplair 1989:64)
The years 1936-37 marked the high point of American labor’s political clout (Nicholson 2004:215). In mid-April 1937, the Wagner Act was upheld by the Supreme Court (Prindle 1988). On April 30, 1937, the Federation of Motion Picture Crafts (FMPC) took the studio executives by surprise and “walked out of studios, demanding recognition” (Horne 2001, Prindle 1988:28, Ceplair 1989, Nielsen and Mailes 1995). The FMPC was a coalition of unions under the leadership of Jeff Kibre, including over 6,000 people: art directors, cooks, costume designers, lab engineers, technical directors, sound engineers, set designers, scenic artists, hairstylists, make-up artists painters, plasterers, and plumbers, among others.
Jeff Kibre was a second-generation Hollywood studio worker–his mother had worked in the art departments of the studios (Ceplair 1989). He was also a communist who ignored the teachings of the Party and did what he thought was right. The Party did not support his actions. Like everyone else, the Communist Party leadership was much more interested in above-the-line labor.
According to labor leader Harry Bridges, Kibre was, “one of them….he had a simple eloquent manner of radiating this quality. He possessed a special talent for making it clear to the rank and file that he knew their problems and for inculcating in them an emotional sense of solidarity as the means to their freedom” (Ceplair 1989:66). Among his closest friends was Mae Huettig, who later wrote Economic Control of the Motion Picture Industry (1944) a book which helped support the later Supreme Court Paramount decisions (Ceplair 1989).
The FMPC, an organization working for union democracy, had emerged in part in reaction to the IATSE, “the conservative, despotically governed, suspected mob-affiliated union [which] had nothing to offer anyone with any idealism” (Prindle 1988:28). To help fight the strike, the IATSE brought in thugs from their organized crime connections to assault the strikers, who were shown in the newspaper photographs in hospital beds. SAG leaders offered tacit and public support of the FMPC, but they had their own agenda. The threat of a sympathetic SAG strike brought about a meeting between SAG officials and the producers: On May 9, SAG leaders met with Louis B. Mayer who agreed to recognize the Guild as the actors’ bargaining agent, which meant SAG would have its first written contract. Willie Bioff of IATSE attended that meeting. When the SAG leadership announced their victory to their members, they also mentioned their complete support of the IATSE (Prindle 1988, Nielsen Mailes 1995).
The strike failed, but Kibre was not defeated. Reorganizing under the banner of the IATSE Progressives, Kibre began investigating Bioff’s and Browne’s backgrounds with the help of his attorney, Carey McWilliams, and a private detective agency (Ceplair 1989, McWilliams 1979). The IATSE Progressives soon filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Browne responded by ending the two-percent assessment, and Willie Bioff resigned. The IATSE then began fighting back with red-baiting (anti-communist) flyers, harassment and violence. Kibre received so many death threats that he needed continuous protection, and ultimately his attempt at Democratic trade unionism failed, “He failed in Hollywood … because he could not match the power the IATSE could muster… movie studio bosses, California legislators, Los Angeles policemen, American Federation of Labor bureaucrats, and thugs and gangsters” (Ceplair 1989:64).
However, Kibre succeeded in beginning the process that would spell the end for Bioff and Browne (This process was also helped by the news stories of Westbrook Pegler who later won a Pulitzer for exposing the IATSE (Nielsen Mailes 1995)). Kibre was blacklisted by the IATSE, so could find no work, but he knew his ongoing presence in Hollywood was a thorn in the side of IATSE. He agreed to leave town in exchange for IATSE agreeing not to persecute members of the democratically oriented United Studio Technicians Guild (USTB). He went on to work for the CIO fishermen’s union (Nielsen Mailes 1995).
The ongoing red-baiting of Kibre and others got enormous media attention, and served the Hollywood studios as a very public distraction from the influence of organized crime in Hollywood. As Carey McWilliams, who helped expose Bioff and Browne, wrote in his memoir,
The Bioff episode left me with a feeling that the army of sleuths, informers, and House Un-American Activities Committee investigators who descended on Hollywood in the 1940s to ferret out “reds” and radicals and expose “Communist” plots might better have devoted their talents to investigating corrupt labor practices in the motion picture industry. The perspective of a quarter century confirms this impression (McWilliams 1979:92).