1947 on: HUAC, the Blacklist, above-the-line union wimps, and really Congress should have been investigating Bioff’s ties with organized crime…

HUAC (The House Committee on Un-American Activities)

IATSE President George Browne, prior to his arrest, had first invited Martin Dies of what was then called the Dies Committee (and would later be called the House Committee on Un-American Activities or HUAC) to investigate Hollywood communists. Herb Sorell commented that the congressman “would do better to investigate Bioff than Communists” (Nielsen Mailes 1995:65).   In May of 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to Hollywood to talk with “friendly” witnesses who cooperated with their investigations (Prindle 1988:52). The committee was comprised of men including J. Parnell Thomas (who would later serve prison time), and Richard Nixon, (who would later have to resign the United States Presidency because of his wrongdoing with regard to the Watergate break-ins) (Henretta et. al. 2002, Cole 1981).

During the 1947 House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigations in Washington, D.C., eleven prominent and well-liked members of the Hollywood labor community (who would later be called the “Hollywood Ten,”), refused to answer questions posed by a Congressional committee about their membership in various organizations, including, most importantly, their union affiliation, and they refused to name alleged Communist sympathizers.  They were blacklisted by the studios, and were imprisoned for contempt of Congress (Campbell 2007). “Sadly, the Screen Actors Guild, the Screen Writers Guild (SWG) and the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) made virtually no effort to challenge the sacrifice of their members to the blacklist” (Ceplair 1998). In 1951, HUAC expanded the scope of its investigation in Hollywood. When members of above-the-line film unions had appealed to their leadership for help with this “aggressive witch-hunt” (Campbell2007:253), they found none. For example, in 1951, SAG President Ronald Reagan told actor Gale Sondergaard, who had appealed to the Guild for support in responding to HUAC, “all participants in the international Communist Party conspiracy against our nation should be exposed for what they are—enemies of our country and of our form of government” (Davis1982).

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1947 Ronald Reagan becomes SAG president and suddenly bats for the other team…

In March of 1947, out of respect for the Screen Actors Guild conflict-of-interest clause, the SAG President, Robert Montgomery, as well as vice-presidents Dick Powell and Franchot Tone resigned because they had production interests in films that could raise questions about their allegiances in representing actors. Ronald Reagan, a third vice-president, suddenly was SAG President, and equally as suddenly was no longer a liberal.  He blamed his political shift on harassment by the CSU (Horne 2001).  In April 1947 he invited FBI agents to visit him at home and he named people he believed to be communists (Prindle 1988:50). [1]


[1] It is important to acknowledge at this point that this work examines nuances of human behavior, group behavior, and the nuanced portrayal of such behavior in the motion pictures. An interesting aspect of the research was exploring the complicated roles of people like Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Roy Brewer.  People are contradictory.  Unlike many movies, this project attempts to demonstrate that there are no “good guys and bad guys.”  These people, who have been both lionized and excoriated in the popular media, are neither good guys nor bad guys.  They made decisions and took actions that were helpful and harmful to many people.  They stood for principles or did not stand for principles about which many have widely varying attitudes.  My hope is that this complexity–and not some final judgment about the content of their character–is what stays with the reader.

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1948 Taft Hartley which strips labor of power, influenced by Hollywood labor struggles and violence

Taft Hartley (1948)

            According to a congressman who helped shaped Taft-Hartley, the Hollywood union conflicts were “a very, very important consideration when we were drafting” the legislation.  Film labor historian Gerald Horne writes, “The formulators of the Taft-Hartley legislation…were influenced profoundly by the startling scenes of violence from Hollywood and the torturous elections and jurisdictional battles that characterized union struggles there” (Horne 2001:15).

            Taft-Hartley was also part of a general pattern of legislation:  It is characteristic of American labor history that during the war periods, workers are granted certain powers and freedoms in order to encourage them to support the war.  World War II was such a moment. American workers not only felt their power, but knew that it was with their help that America won the War (Nicholson 2004).

            It is also characteristic that after a war is over, big business—with government support–clamps down on labor power and re-constrains and discourages workers.  The Taft Hartley Act (1948) stripped the labor movement of its power in many ways.  Among those most significant parts of Taft Hartley for film workers, and for Hollywood film production that did not occur in Hollywood, were that the Act demanded that union members sign an oath declaring they were not a members of the Communist Party, and created “right to work” states where big business could operate unfettered by unions (Henretta et. al. 2002, Nicholson 2004).

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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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2009: Why we should care about unions, runaway production, the middle class or about America (the global hegemonic power)

            Throughout the course of writing this project, many individuals I spoke with have asked me why we should care about unions, about runaway production, about the middle class or aboutAmerica as the global hegemonic power.

The American Labor Movement is in crisis.  Despite the fact that 58% of  Americans approve of labor unions (Gallup 2005), the percentage of Americans who are members of labor unions has declined from an all-time high of 33% in 1960 to 12.5% at the present day. Today, approximately 16.1 million Americans belong to unions. 

When we talk about what labor union solidarity emerges from, we can begin to understand what is being lost. According to Joshua Freeman, a labor historian, this can be characterized as an “ethic of solidarity and mutuality.”  Freeman said,

“[S]ome of it grows out of necessity; you’re living on the margin, you need to turn to other people, whether it’s extended family to watch your kids, or whether it’s neighbors.  That mutuality is part of the way of life for working-class people.  The labor movement is something that grows out of that.  This notion of solidarity, this notion that to improve yourself and promote the values you have, you have to stand with other people, it’s a necessity and an ethic and a value system.  And I think that’s a very civilizing notion.  I think that that notion is one that labor, at its best anyway, has embodied and promoted” (Freeman 2006).

Another good reason to care about the unions is that the unions, like our government, are manmade structures that can stand in the way of the rationalized destruction wrought by capitalism.  The unions “hinder the strict carrying through of the sheer market principle” (Weber 1946a:185). (Max Weber was talking about other social structures but his idea easily applies to unions.) Unions are often problematic organizations that serve at least as a partial bulwark of protection for large groups of people.  Capitalists often consider them inconvenient because unions, in principle, value the preservation of human life and dignity over the acquisition of ever-increasing amounts of money. Given the dehumanizing power of capital, which results in a human being alienated in a “steel hard casing” as Weber so famously put it (Weber 1946b), and given the civilizing power that Freeman discusses, these labor union structures are worth our renewed consideration and intelligent, eternally vigilant, support.

            However sensible unions’ avowed purpose, direct experience of union leaders’ activities like those discussed in this project (or publicity about them) makes it difficult for many to consider unions as a viable option for protecting working people. 

To the above generalizations about unions, I will add another: all unions are different, and every individual within every union is different.  One aim of this project is to show that within the unions and within individuals, there are possibilities for awareness and for social change.  I argue that labor unions, however flawed, vitally serve the public interest by providing bulwarks against the ravenousness of corporate greed, to the extent that their membership and the public hold the unions accountable. 

Similarly, the existence of the middle class is a bulwark which transnational corporations are in the process of “hollowing out.” Runaway production is part of that process. If any other industry were losing $10 billion a year and over 23,000 jobs, this would be front-page news.  There are many issues involved, including the fact that the multinational corporations who own the movie studios also own many of the newspapers. It is not in the corporate interest to report on this subject. One other issue may be the American public’s belief in the “American Dream.” To many early twenty-first-century citizens, the concept of the American Dream feels eternal. It is a common, albeit logical, fallacy to assume that something has always existed just because one has always known it to exist (Tversky 1982). It is as fragile as the eroding union solidarity discussed early in the dissertation (sorry, not on the blog).

I believe that we can play at moral relativism and take an “impartial” “scientific” stance by saying there is no good or bad in this situation.  But as a sociologist who draws from both quantitative and qualitative evidence, I cannot in good conscience argue that relativist position.  The only beneficiaries of that position are corporate interests.  That stance is only possible with a depopulated world view, where you count statistics and forget individual talented flesh-and-blood people who are, often enough, making an American product so spectacularly unique that it is irreplaceable.  This project argues against such moral relativism.

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2000: Mikhail Glattes, Another Death in the Filmmaking Process. IATSE Mainstream Leadership Does Nothing.

Mikhail Glattes was working on a commercial in Canada. The shoot involved helicopter work in the Llewellyn Glacier.  The trained Hollywood pilot on Glattes’s shoot refused to fly his helicopter the day of the shoot because he had work he needed to do.  The production company said they couldn’t lose a day of production.   By contract, the original trained pilot had the right not to fly, and he invoked that right.  In his stead, the production company hired a local tour guide pilot, which was their right, put him in the helicopter, and sent him up to do the shot. 

The use of untrained personnel during the present phase of runaway production exacerbates the risks to all.  Craig Hosking, who has done film flying shoots for over twenty years says, “A new guy who has his one time chance in the Hollywood limelight may push it to try and prove himself.  Non-film pilots will fixate on the shot and forget to fly the helicopter” (Winogrand 2000).

The Canadian federal aviation report said that during the first pass, the pilot came “uncomfortably close” to the ice climber, “about five feet over his head, at a high speed” (Aviation 2007). The pilot was going too fast, and he did not know any better.  As a tour guide, he had no experience with work of this kind.  During the second pass, “the rotor clipped it, and he went sideways, went down into a crevasse, exploded, killed the pilot, a grip, my friend, and the director/cameraman” ([Release of name pending approval of informant, interview 2006).  The rescue and recovery personnel determined that “recovery would present a high risk to personnel.  There was no recovery” (Transport Canada 2000).

The dissertation covers this in greater depth.  The fact remains:  This tragedy could have been avoided with a simple change of phrase in the contract.  Did the mainstream union leadership address this?  Not as far as I could tell.  If you know differently, let me know.

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2007. The Macho Filmmaking Culture: Real Men Don’t Save Lives

While many crew members are now college educated, with middle-class backgrounds, on the set there’s an almost “over-macho” spirit, a joining in to the working class ethic.  This is part of a larger issue common to unionized men in traditionally male work enclaves:

“Convinced that staying employed is contingent on completing work within tight timeframes set by supervisors and inordinately compelled to be esteemed the only “real men” deserving of steady [work, white men frequently feel] compelled or chose to ignore and compromise safety and health regulations designed to protect all … workers including themselves.  In so doing, [they] put themselves and the labor movement in harm’s way.” (Royster 2007:453).

Scholar Kris Paap talks about this behavior giving them the sense of being “real men,” and occurring at the cost of the real power they could gain as active participants in the shared power of collective bargaining (Royster 2007:454).

In part as a result of this, “fatal accidents and serious injuries still occur with astonishing frequency on film and TV sets.”  The official entertainment industry injury and fatality statistics are relatively low compared with other industries because entertainment statistics also include thousands of people who work in offices. Rana Plat-Petersen, the business representative for the Motion Picture Studio First Aid Employees, discusses the fact that injuries are under-reported because of the testosterone-heavy atmosphere on film sets, “They’re macho guys… They won’t report an injury. You basically have to drag it out of them.”  According to Louis Therrien, an independent safety consultant in Pasadena, people are afraid to speak up. “You’re looking at a whole production company sitting there, and you’re going to tell them they’re going to have to wait and do something different?….That’s time and money” (Longwell 2002). 

In addition, the “macho” culture diverts the energy of would-be protesters from other real issues.

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