1930s That historic link between Hollywood Unions and Organized Crime…

The Mob

            There was something very wrong with this union.

                                                –Gene Mailes, IATSE Activist (Nielsen Mailes 1995:31)

            Roosevelt’s legalization of beer in April 1933, and the repeal of the 18th Amendment, ending prohibition, in December 1933, added to his growing popularity (Henretta et. al. 2002). However, nationwide, a whole generation of criminals, who previously had secure employment in the liquor business, needed to find new jobs. In Chicago in 1934, workers in organized crime found their entry into Hollywood through Willie Bioff, a “small-time hoodlum who had done his share of pimping and bootlegging,” and George Browne, the leader of the IATSE Stagehands Local in Chicago. Bioff and Browne had been extorting funds from theater owners so the owners would not have to restore wage cuts to local film workers; their tactical error was to celebrate the arrival of a $20,000 lump-sum payment by flagrantly throwing around their newfound wealth at a gambling joint run by a member of the Capone crime syndicate, then under Frank Nitti’s leadership.  After their celebration, Nitti’s men told Bioff and Browne he wanted half their take, or else (Nielsen Mailes 1995).

By 1934, the syndicate successfully ran Browne unopposed for President of the entire IATSE, and “negotiated” for a two-thirds return of future payoffs. Their successful efforts were aided by former President William Elliot’s failure in the Hollywood strike, and by their own willingness to win at any cost.  Also, Bioff waved pistols at people to emphasize his willingness to get what he wanted. The syndicate emphasized their sincerity in efforts to go to any lengths to suppress resistance by later murdering Tommy Malloy, a powerful Chicago IATSE member who had the knowledge and courage to expose Bioff, Browne, and the Capone syndicate.  Over 300 cars followed in Malloy’s funeral procession (Nielsen and Mailes 1995, Aller 1972).  The threats of violence and actual violence were not a-typical.  For example, when New Jersey members of IATSE found out that their business agent, Louis Kaufman, was involved in the mob, they unsuccessfully tried to vote him out.  Kaufman responded, “A lot of people here want to see me in jail.  I’ll be around when they’re gone and they won’t die a natural death” (Aller 1972:52).  When exhibitors told Bioff that his demand of two projectionists in each booth plus $100,000 would mean the theaters would go out of business, Bioff responded, “If that will kill grandma, then grandma must die” (Friedrich 1986:64). 

            Bioff and Browne went to the studio heads in 1935 offering a compliant labor force in exchange for $2 million in payoffs.  They found willing negotiators, “the majors welcomed the opportunity to pay for studio labor relations that served their interests” (Hartsough 1989:51).   As labor activist Gene Mailes put it, “Men like Joe Schenk, Chairman of the Board of 20th Century Fox, would rather deal with the leading criminals in the country than their own employees” (Nielsen Mailes 1995:112). However, many IATSE members supported Browne.  Herb Aller, a long-time IATSE business representative said, “Our feeling was that Browne could do the job.  How and when no one cared” (Aller 1972:55).

            The IATSE emerged from January 1936 negotiations with renewed and strengthened participation in the Studio Basic Agreement: the IATSE had the first closed-shop agreement in Hollywood history.  The IATSE also had enlarged jurisdiction over camera operators, stage carpenters, grips, lab technicians, property people, sound technicians and lamp operators.  In addition the IATSE had levied a two-percent assessment against the wages of all members (this netted them approximately $6.5 million dollars, much of which was shared with the syndicate). It is estimated that the payoffs to Bioff and Browne saved the studios $15 million (Hartsough 1989, McWilliams 1979, Cogley 1956).  Those IATSE members who tried to protest the new conditions of their employment were “beaten up, suspended from their jobs, and expelled from the union” (McWilliams 1979:87).

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