Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950

Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists

By Gerald Horne

This engrossing book probes the motives and actions of all the players to reveal the full story of the Conference of Studio Unions strike and the resulting lockout of 1946.

2001

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 363 pp. | 18 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-73138-7

As World War II wound down in 1945 and the cold war heated up, the skilled trades that made up the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) began a tumultuous strike at the major Hollywood studios. This turmoil escalated further when the studios retaliated by locking out CSU in 1946. This labor unrest unleashed a fury of Red-baiting that allowed studio moguls to crush the union and seize control of the production process, with far-reaching consequences.

This engrossing book probes the motives and actions of all the players to reveal the full story of the CSU strike and the resulting lockout of 1946. Gerald Horne draws extensively on primary materials and oral histories to document how limited a "threat" the Communist party actually posed in Hollywood, even as studio moguls successfully used the Red scare to undermine union clout, prevent film stars from supporting labor, and prove the moguls' own patriotism.

Horne also discloses that, unnoticed amid the turmoil, organized crime entrenched itself in management and labor, gaining considerable control over both the "product" and the profits of Hollywood. This research demonstrates that the CSU strike and lockout were a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, with consequences for everything from production values, to the kinds of stories told in films, to permanent shifts in the centers of power.

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  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1
    • Introduction
  • Part 2
    • Chapter 1: Class versus Class
    • Chapter 2: Reds
  • Part 3
    • Chapter 3: Mobsters and Stars
    • Chapter 4: Moguls
  • Part 4
    • Chapter 5: Strike
    • Chapter 6: Lockout
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Index

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This is a book about labor-management conflict in Hollywood. It concerns the attempt of the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a federation of craft unions led by painters and carpenters, to confront not only the major studios but also a competing union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its allies in organized crime. CSU went on strike in 1945 and was locked out in 1946. However, it fought its antagonists to a standstill in 1945. They were routed in 1946. The vanquishing of CSU erased progressive trade unionism for generations to come in one of this nation's most significant industries.

CSU's enemies wielded one major charge--that the organization was led and dominated by members of the Communist Party. However, this allegation was wildly inaccurate. The CSU's leader--Herb Sorrell--was a painter and former boxer who appeared to have absorbed one too many punches to the skull. He was militant and fearless, but lacked tactical skills. He was publicly hostile to the Soviet Union and insensitively clumsy in addressing the needs and aspirations of Southern California's African American population. Despite the fact that these actions were clearly not the hallmarks of Communist leadership in the first half of the twentieth century, the explosive cry of "Communist" effectively disrupted CSU's effort to win victories for its membership.

The union's downfall amounts to a controlled experiment that demonstrates vividly that accusations of communism were not just designed to drive out practicing Reds with ties to Moscow. This it did, most definitely, but these bombardments were also intended to damage militant non-Communist labor, which suffered fatal collateral damage. With the latter ousted, the path was primed for management to seize greater control of the production process and garner more profits by reducing once powerful mastifflike unions to the status of tiny, toothless terriers. The experience of Hollywood labor demonstrates that the Red Scare was in many ways an attack on militant "unionism," conducted under the guise of an attack on communism.

The strife of the mid-1940s was also important for other reasons. At stake was nothing less than control over an industry that was essential in forging people's consciousness. The titans of Hollywood had invested mightily in creating a "star system" that had captivated the imagination of millions worldwide who followed the doings of actors--on and off the screen. Hollywood was surely a "dream factory," and these iconic actors lived lives that were the stuff of dreams as they instructed and mesmerized. But how would the multitudes respond to the sight of their favorite stars on picket lines, embroiled in a class struggle? How would the masses react when the Oz-like curtain of illusion was ripped away, revealing that the issues in Hollywood were not that different from those in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other labor-management battlefronts? Yet there was at least one significant difference: class struggle in Hollywood could grab attention and provide lessons in ways unmatched by other labor-capital conflicts.

Other factors help explain the ferocity of the onslaught on Hollywood labor. The screenwriters, which did include a complement of Communists, were indispensable in the production process. Though the moguls sought to show otherwise, making a decent movie without a competent screenplay based on a sound idea was tough. Even in the digital era of the twenty-first century, dispensing with writers--unlike other guilds and unions--will be difficult. Moreover, screenwriters, who were genuinely interested in intellectual exchange and foreign film were countered by moguls who were desperately interested in constructing firm protectionist walls to keep international cinema out of the U.S. market. When the screenwriters--who actively fought against tariff walls that kept foreign films from U.S. audiences--were denuded of Communist influence, it became easier for the moguls to bar foreign films while conquering markets abroad. This protectionism provided a comfortable cushion of profitability that proved critical to the industry in the post-World War II era in the face of stiff challenge from television, independent film producers, and a successful antitrust lawsuit that disrupted the vertical integration of Hollywood. In fact, labor unrest in Hollywood erupted at an unpropitious moment for the moguls, confronted as they were by all manner of challenges--not least of which was anti-Semitism. Bulldozing CSU seemed all the more important in a context where nettlesome problems seemed to be proliferating and metastasizing.

As Communist and other leftist screenwriters like John Howard Lawson, Abraham Polonsky, Dalton Trumbo, Donald Ogden Stewart, Lester Cole, and Ring Lardner, Jr., were driven into purgatory, the ideological content of movies spiraled downward. Making films concerning racism, not to mention gender and class inequality, became more difficult and the road was paved for more "beach blanket" fluff. According to one analyst, weighty "'social problem' films decreased from 20.9 percent of the studios' output in 1947 to 9 percent in 1950 and 1951."

To be fair, CSU and the left had reason to be taken by surprise, for the anticommunist upsurge swept through the industry like a fast-moving, Southern California late-summer blaze. As late as the fall of 1946 Hollywood's chief spokesman, Eric Johnston--and the likeminded actor Ronald Reagan--were dismissing bedrock anticommunist notions. A shrewd businessman, Johnston was proud of his association with Josef Stalin during the war. By 1947 Johnston and Reagan had emerged as avatars of anticommunism and the "blacklist." Apparently it was the intensity of the class struggle led by CSU that forced many in Hollywood to reconsider the utility of anticommunist tactics and to proceed fatefully toward an industry-wide blacklist.

CSU and the left had other problems. By the time the unions went on strike in 1945 the studios had squirreled away so many films that even if production were halted, fresh product would continue to reach the theaters. Moreover, the studios were the ones exhibiting "class consciousness," standing shoulder-to-shoulder to confront a common foe, while the unions were busily knifing one another. The conflict in Hollywood illustrated an age-old lesson: class consciousness does exist in abundance in the United States; it is just painfully deficient among the working class.

It seems clear that fear of a Communist-led union leadership was not the catalyst that inspired fear and loathing of CSU. After all, leading Communists were contemptuous of Sorrell and initially opposed the group's 1945 strike, which was viewed widely as a blatant violation of the wartime "no-strike" pledge. Then again, Communists had their own problems in Hollywood. They purported to be the party of proletarians but, in fact, few painters, carpenters, and truck drivers joined their ranks in Hollywood.

Communist leaders in the industry--like the screenwriter John Howard Lawson--were, unlike Sorrell, eloquent in their denunciation of racial bias; they also penned some of the more effective antiracist screenplays. In creating films like A Medal For Benny, Home of the Brave, Intruder in the Dust, and Broken Arrow, progressive writers and directors were far in advance of their mainstream counterparts. The roles Communists provided for women like Katharine Hepburn were far more sophisticated than the fare Hollywood provided ordinarily. Hollywood leftists rose to the defense of Mexican Americans in the 1943 "Sleepy Lagoon" case, in which authorities falsely accused a dozen young Latinos of murder; and at that time, this group was invisible to most Americans. When an appeals court overturned the conviction and reprimanded the trial court judge for his prejudice and hostility toward the defendants, Communists could claim justifiably a share of the credit.

Firm challenges to racism and sexism were more than just benevolent "do-goodism." Overcoming bigotry was at the core of repulsing reactionary anticommunism--or anti-Semitism, for that matter.

Yet, Communists too could have done more in bringing talented black writers like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Shirley Graham to the gilded trough of screenwriting. A key reason that Hollywood unions weakened in the 1940s was their seeming hesitation to forge alliances with the rising number of African American workers.

Moreover, at touchy moments requiring tactical flexibility, some Communist leaders proceeded awkwardly and, in the process, alienated other potential allies. I speak of a fabled incident involving the writer Albert Maltz (to be addressed below) and the age-old question of whether a "good" writer can have "bad" politics--be it Balzac, a favorite of Marx and Engels, or James Farrell, the "Trotskyite" whose name so inflamed Communists.

Still, dwelling unduly on the real and imagined foibles of the Communists is deceptive ultimately. First of all--and this must be understood and repeated--CSU was not a Communist-dominated union, as was the National Maritime Union, for example. The leading Hollywood Reds were screenwriters and directors and--despite their admitted strength in Southern California--they were clearly not CSU's leaders nor at the heart of the dramatic events of 1945 and 1946.

Nonetheless, Hollywood was a pillar of the Communist Party in Los Angeles--a district probably second only to New York City in Red strength. Why? The reasons were many but chief among them was the fact that the labor policies of studios--like Disney--were so draconian and their profits were so significant that workers felt compelled to organize. Furthermore, the party and the unions received critical assistance--material and otherwise--from moneyed screenwriters and leftist stars and directors. This advantage was shared by few workers outside of Hollywood.

Another organized force, however, played a pivotal role in the electric developments of 1945 and 1946. It too was highly centralized. It too was secretive and often circumspect--at best--about its membership, which stretched from coast to coast. It too often took cues from across the Atlantic. It too was led by cadre. It merits attention, not least because its actions in the political economy are too often veiled. I speak of organized crime.

The cronies of Al Capone himself helped to maintain the odious Willie Bioff and the detestable George Browne in the leadership of IATSE. The muscle of the mob crushed union dissidents. Johnny Roselli, the mob's main man in the West, was a pal of Harry Cohn, the boss at Columbia. Studio executives paid mobsters tens of thousands of dollars, claiming dastardly extortion: CSU labeled these payments bribes designed to buy "labor peace." Meanwhile, mobsters were on both sides of the class divide: investing in studios while controlling labor.

The moguls had other problems beyond their shady partners. These mostly Jewish men were running an often fabulously profitable industry in a nation tainted with anti-Semitism. Inevitably, bigoted circles muttered about the moguls' actual and imaginary affluence and influence. That the leader of the Hollywood Reds--John Howard Lawson--was also Jewish only confirmed in narrow minds that these co-religionists were involved in a conspiracy so immense that it implicated capital and labor alike: the infamous anti-Semitic concoction The Protocols of the Elders of Zion--positing a plot by Jewish Communists and capitalists to seize control of the planet--was confirmed in these fevered imaginations.

The strike and lockout provided the moguls with an opportunity to demonstrate that they would be true to their class interests by crushing CSU with an energetic relish. They could show that they were not "foreigners," but "Americans." A spasm of anti-Semitism erupted in Los Angeles as the postwar era began, reinforcing the conservative assault on labor. When "Bugsy" Siegel, the notorious Jewish mobster who controlled an important "movie extras" union, was murdered and his varied interests in Los Angeles and a soon to boom Las Vegas were gobbled up by his onetime Italian American comrades, a loud signal was transmitted to the moguls that if they did not shape up appropriately, they too could be expropriated--albeit in a more sophisticated manner than that used on the unfortunate Siegel. When the moguls "did the right thing" and smashed CSU, they showed that they could set aside presumed ethno-religious interests and that they were qualified to advance further within the ruling elite. This transition also presupposed--as the scholar Karen Brodkin has put it--that Jewish Americans too could "become white."

Reactionary blitzes were as much a part of the Southern California landscape as palm trees and beaches. In contrast to its northern rival, San Francisco, where union labor had flexed its brawn during the tumultuous general strike of 1934, Los Angeles was a reliable redoubt of the right. Not coincidentally, two of the United States' more important postwar leaders emerged from this Communist-hating region: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was a significant player in this drama. As a leader of the Screen Actors Guild and a certified liberal, he could have helped avert the crushing of CSU. However, he was beginning a short journey that would lead him to the right. Why? He believed that CSU was a perfidious "Communist front" bent on exerting the will of Moscow in Hollywood; this was --by his own admission--the major reason that he helped to engineer the crossing of CSU's picket lines.

The lockout of 1946 set the stage for the blacklist of 1947. This epochal development is--perhaps understandably--interpreted generally as a blanket penalty that applied exclusively to the "talent" guilds: actors, writers, directors. Yet, a prelude to this movement was the bludgeoning of CSU, whose members were likewise barred from the industry.

Not only did the vanquishing of CSU mold the trajectory of what was to become the nation's most populous state, it also squashed the possibility that reform-minded unions might have impact on an industry increasingly capable of adroitly kneading the popular consciousness. The elimination of CSU placed Hollywood labor in a disadvantageous position while global production and technological change loomed as the twin keynotes for a new century.


Part I of this book contains the Introduction, which expands on the broad outlines of the Preface and sketches a story that reaches a climax in later chapters, which focus on the strike of 1945 and the lockout of union labor in 1946. The Introduction provides a broad base of understanding for these events by examining their impact on the movies, anticommunism and the Communist Party, anti-Semitism and the movie moguls, and labor and the mob in Southern California.

Part II consists of Chapter 1, which outlines labor-management jousting in the film industry before the mid-1940s, and Chapter 2, which examines the Communist Party and its chief local antagonist, the "Red Squad" of the L.A. Police Department.

Part III--more specifically, Chapter 3--explores the role of the mobsters, who allied with the moguls to squash union activism, and the stars who were torn between supporting CSU and standing aside, fearful that lending aid would lead to their own demise. Chapter 4 probes the moguls.

Part IV, Chapters 5 and 6, is the core of this book, giving a detailed examination of the tumultuous events of 1945 and afterward when militant labor confronted the moguls and wound up being driven from the industry.

The Epilogue updates the trends noted in the rest of the book--e.g., the film industry's place in the economy of Southern California; the changing nature of race and ethnicity in the region and the industry, particularly as it concerns organized crime; the continued value of export markets; and, most importantly for this study, the weakened state of labor in Hollywood--which is a direct outgrowth of the crushing of CSU.

Gerald Horne is the author of Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. He is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"This book is destined to be a bombshell in the field and perhaps far beyond the field."
—Paul Buhle, coauthor of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist