1940s The Conference of Studio Unions–A Democratic Alternative to the IATSE (And why Warner Brothers threw gas grenades at the CSU.)

The Conference of Studio Unions

During the 1940s, in the wake of the Bioff-Browne debacle, Herbert Sorrell, who had been active in earlier efforts for democratic unionism, organized below-the-line film workers.  This group included the remnants of Jeff Kibre’s USTG, painters, publicists, screen cartoonists, story analysts, lab technicians, carpenters and electricians.  They became a militant group called the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), in another attempt to form a democratic alternative to the IATSE.  At least initially, the producers welcomed the confrontation because it diverted attention from the film workers’ common cause:  bargaining for better conditions.  Sorrell was dedicated and soon successful in gaining for his workers some of the best wages in the industry (Neilsen Mailes 1995).

While Sorrell was later vilified for alleged communist ties, it is important to note that he broke with the United States Communist Party policy of no wartime strikes by calling for a walkout in March 1945, which led to the most violent, serious labor confrontations in Hollywood history. Sorrell believed that “war or no war we should not give up any basic American trade union belief” (Nielsen Mailes 1995:87-91).

The conflict between the IATSE and the CSU resulted in a series of strikes in the mid-1940s that captured the attention of the American public. Initially 7,000 film workers went on strike.  The 1945 strikes culminated in “Bloody Friday” or “The Battle of Warner Brothers” on October 5. From inside Warner Brothers’ studio, from the top of the five-story-high sound stages, people started dropping six-inch bolts on the strikers.  Then the Warner Brothers private fire department turned fire hoses full force on the strikers, and Warner’s private police threw gas grenades into the crowd.  Cars were overturned, and goons paid $50 each by the IATSE attacked the strikers with monkey wrenches leaving many injured and nine people hospitalized (Nielsen Mailes 1995).

(The CSU was not a completely egalitarian organization.  During a July 1946 strike, when William Riddle, a black Janitor attempted to cross the picket line and was seized, he said angrily, “I ain’t white enough to get into your union.  Your picket line ain’t good enough for me!”  Riddle was released and he went to work (Horne 2001:226)).

The CSU was eventually destroyed, some say, because their message was complex and nuanced. The people who opposed them, led by IATSE representative Roy Brewer, had the power of the studios, the IATSE, the local police and the mob behind them, and they also had a much simpler message.  They labeled the CSU members “communists.” “Brewer’s argument was the one that prevailed, probably because it was far easier to understand… for four years Brewer bludgeoned [the CSU] with a never-varying attack: communism, communism, communism” (Prindle 1988:43, Horne 2001, Nielsen and Mailes 1995).   Some have argued that Brewer was sincere, and that in his mind, “the vulnerability of his stagehands became indistinguishable from the plight of the free world” (Prindle 1988:42). 

Brewer’s strategic action also made him a major force in Hollywood.  He built,

a power base for right-wing politics in Hollywood that would make him one of the most powerful men in the motion picture industry within a few years.  He initiated the Hollywood blacklist, starting with the long-time irritants to the leaders of the IATSE, namely the remnants of the old IA Progressives and their supporters. (Nielsen Mailes 1995:126).

The destruction of the CSU also had implications for democratic trade unionism in the IATSE.  According to Gene Mailes, who worked with Herbert Sorrell in the CSU,

The results have been that the IA studio workers have not gone out on a major strike for over forty years [as of 2008 it’s over sixty years]….Years after more militant unions have gained advantages, the IA members are still thrown a few crumbs to keep them quiet.  The problems we were fighting then are still faced by current studio workers.  It might even be worse today (Nielsen Mailes 1995:114-5).

President Roosevelt died in office in 1945, and Harry Truman became President. After the November 1946 elections, for the first time in eighteen years, Republicans controlled both the Senate and the House.  American left the “hot war” mentality for the “cold war” mentality (Nielsen Mailes 1995). Some have argued that the underlying cause of the subsequent investigations of “communists” by the House and Senate, and the attacks on progressives in the labor unions, had more to do with the dismantling and disempowering of Roosevelt’s New Deal than any real Communist threat to America.

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3 Responses to 1940s The Conference of Studio Unions–A Democratic Alternative to the IATSE (And why Warner Brothers threw gas grenades at the CSU.)

  1. Roberta A. Perry says:

    My father was in this strike, he was on the cover of the LA newspapers. His name is Robert A. (Bob) Perry. My grandfather Sam A. Perry was the head of Universal Studios in the 1930’s. I am looking for more information.

  2. I’m not quite adept at this blogging business, but do check out Horne’s book Class Struggle in Hollywood. And Nielse Mailes book Hollywood’s Other Blacklist.

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