Class struggle in the dream factory 

24 May 2023
Vashti Fox

Early twentieth century Hollywood moguls declared themselves to be the bosses of a “dream factory”. They were the heads of an industry in which fantasies were splashed in technicolour glory across the big screen viewed by millions. Much ink has been spilled over the ideological nature of these fantasies. Less has been written on the reality of life in the factory. When the curtain is ripped away, Oz-like, the truth is revealed: Hollywood, and the film and television industry more generally, are sites of class exploitation and, at times, working-class retaliation.

Across the USA, members of the Writers Guild of America are currently on strike. They are fighting against abysmal conditions in which they are expected to pump out content for very little (if any) pay. This is not the first writers’ strike; in fact, it is the eighth since the 1950s. Writers are not the only part of the dream factory to have taken serious industrial action. Behind the shimmering exterior, the entertainment industries have long been insecure and unsafe employers, which has prompted workers to rebel.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) was established in New York in 1893 to represent offstage workers in Broadway’s theatres, cabarets and vaudeville houses. In 1905, it made a push into the burgeoning film industry in Los Angeles and organised small strikes in 1918, 1919 and 1921 before reaching its first agreement for wages and conditions in 1926. Those who worked behind the scenes—the set designers, plumbers, carpenters, painters, make-up artists, grips, scene editors and occasionally the writers—have historically been the most exploited and, at times, the most explosive sectors of the industry.

By the 1920s, film was one of the most lucrative industries in the United States; billions were made, and the big studio heads were the beneficiaries. The bosses of the “Big Five”—Warner Brothers, Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), RKO Radio Pictures and 20th Century Fox—were not going to let unionised workers get in the way of their profit bonanza. They found myriad ways to maintain their dictatorial rule. After reluctantly signing the agreement with IATSE in 1926, Louis B. Mayer, chief at MGM, became concerned that union fever would begin to infect the “talent” (the actors, writers and directors), and after discussions with other moguls, he established the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Not only might the Academy draw actors and writers into the orbit of the studio bosses, but if done right it could provide a fresh coat of paint to an industry racked by scandal. The mere title of the body screamed establishment respectability, and the only people who would be considered for Academy Awards were those who refused to unionise. Thus, the Oscars were born: an anti-union dream to keep the factory running smoothly.

As the Great Depression hit and impacted profit margins, class struggle intensified; in Hollywood, as elsewhere, many workers began to unionise. In New York in 1937, animators entered the vanguard. Two employees of the animation studio Fleischer (responsible for Popeye and Betty Boop) died of tuberculosis due to working conditions, prompting a five-month strike that resulted in the recognition of the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild (SCG) and a decent contract.

Perhaps the most famous of the animators’ strikes was against Disney in 1941. Walt Disney was notoriously right wing and anti-union, and his studio was the last to recognise the SCG. Nevertheless, animators, in-betweeners (the workers who drew the transition from frame to frame) and colourists continued to organise. In May 1941, Disney hunted down those heading the union drive and fired them. These figures included Art Babbit, one of Disney’s top animators, who was responsible for iconic characters such as Goofy and Geppetto in Pinocchio. Workers were ropable; they called a strike and organised picket lines. Union leader Herb Sorrell remembered in the PM newspaper:

“It was particularly picturesque because these artists insisted on depicting everything in their picket lines ... it was their duty when off the picket line to make gags and signs.”

They even constructed a mock guillotine to behead a lifelike mannequin of Disney himself. After five weeks, the strike won the permanent reinstatement of sacked workers, equalisation of pay, a clear system of salaries and classifications and a grievance procedure. All was not forgotten, however, and pro-union sentiment crept its way into some of Disney’s animations. There’s a scene in Dumbo, for instance, where a bunch of circus clowns march off to confront management.

By 1945, other Hollywood workers had become restive. Unsatisfied by the now compromised IATSE run by mobsters, some began turning to more militant unions. The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), representing set crews, secretaries, stenographers, guides, cooks, waitresses, dishwashers, carpenters, electricians and set painters and decorators, led by boxer-cum-set painter Herb Sorrell, proved to be such a union. CSU called a strike in March 1945, and 10,500 workers downed tools and set up picket lines to protest unsafe, insecure and badly paid work. Although the CSU was accused of being a Communist-dominated union, the reality was quite different. The Communist Party in fact objected to the strike because it broke the “no strike” pledge it had signed for the duration of World War Two; appallingly, party members even crossed the picket line. The studio bosses were intractable, and the strike became bitter, resulting in one of the most violent moments in the history of Hollywood’s class struggle. On Black Friday, as 5 October 1945 became known, the heads of Warner Brothers studio, local police and scab workers attempted to break a union picket line. Writer Gerald Horne in his book Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950, gave the following description:

“Dozens were injured in a melee at the entrance to Warner Bros. studio in Burbank as strikers confronted scabs and police officers. Some among the hundreds of strikers and their supporters were ‘knifed, clubbed and gassed,’ while others were swept off their feet by spray from fire hoses. The glass of smashed windshields littered the pavement. There were ‘tear gas bomb blasts’ and overturned cars. Periodic fistfights at times engaged a dozen men or more.”

This very bitter dispute ended with a Pyrrhic victory for the workers. After the war, the studio bosses and the right-wing IATSE joined forces and locked out militant workers, breaking the CSU. This was the opening chapter of the McCarthy era in Hollywood, which rooted out high-profile Communist Party writers and actors, and targeted independent union organising. This bleak period in trade union and political history has left a legacy, not just in Hollywood, but across the United States. Nevertheless, as the current writers’ strike indicates, there remains some red thread of consistency, perhaps some memory of the classic union slogan: “If you don’t fight, you lose”.

What this history makes clear is that, behind the sequinned glamour is an industry built on the labour of the many. If the dreams of the workers who operate the gears and levers of the “dream factory” are ever to be realised, then their fight must continue till the end.

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