Simply Red. (Book Review).
While the seedy underbelly of Hollywood has never been that obscure, it loomed closest in the 1940s, when the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a federation of film-industry craft unions comprised mostly of painters and carpenters, went on strike citing the "draconian working conditions" studios imposed upon workers. The year was 1945, smack-dab between World War II and the Cold War, when the Soviets were still viewed as allies and U.S. Communist sympathizers hadn't yet been labeled traitors. Soon however, the Red Scare was in full bloom, disabling the blossoming labor movement for many years to come. "Some CSU leaders believed that cooperating with the Communists was in their best interests," and the strikers were quickly dubbed Reds, despite the fact that "the organization was led by Hollywood painters with few Reds at the highest levels." The strike was an atypical boycott from the very start, with studios hiring "the cronies of Al Capone" as enforcers as well as buying off legions of crooked cops to crus h the union dissidents. The moguls were so powerful and so racist that Columbia's Harry Cohn even went so far as to urge mobsters to kill African-American entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. because of his interracial affair with starlet Kim Novak, fearing that the relationship would "harm her marketability."
Brutal violence was a daily occurrence. "There were stories about painters beaten, and others knocked unconscious with a blunt instrument and severely pummeled with fists; still others were injured seriously enough to be treated at a hospital."' But it wasn't just the studio brass getting in on the savagery -- the strikers themselves were violent. "Unions, too, have been known to use strong-arm tactics during strikes, and CSU ... was no exception to this brutish rule." Picketers were reputedly instructed by CSU leaders to cut out the politeness and get tough." The violence eventually culminated in an October 1945 riot in front of Warner Bros.' Burbank studios in which "strikebreakers, goons and county police ... armed with chains, bolts, hammers, six-inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets and battery cables" attacked the picketers who had amassed in the early morning. Two police officers and 43 strikers were hurt n the melee.
The seven-month strike came to an anticlimactic end on October 29, 1945. Those involved were quick to label it "nobody's victory" because of he inordinate number of issues that vent unresolved. A brief strike in 1946 resulted in higher wages and a shorter work week for laborers, but continuing tensions led to yet another strike. The studios, unhappy with the unions steadily increasing belligerence, decide to teach the strikers a lesson they wouldn't forget and spearheaded a lockout that led to the eventual defeat of CSU. "A plot was hatched to create 'hot' sets that would presumably force carpenters, painters, and other CSU workers to walk out. As it turned out, those who did not leave were asked to do so." Some CSU members, driven out with nowhere to turn, formed other unions with similar goals. The rest simply faded away and CSU, which had struck just a year earlier with roughly 10,500 members, now found itself without any. Its bargaining days were over.
Horne, a Fulbright scholar and professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contends that Hollywood's Red Scare was less about any real threat of Communist infiltration than about the moguls' desire to put an end to organized labor. "The authorities were bleating about Communist penetration, just as unions were purging their ranks of real and imaginary Reds." His theory is substantiated since CSU had few Communists among its ranks. Still, its leaders were redbaited and attacked on numerous occasions by studio heads who wanted to free themselves of the union's yoke. CSU's eventual downfall after the lockout was the coup de grace, "erasing progressive trade unionism for generations to come in one of this nation's most significant industries."
Horne's occasionally meandering but ultimately stirring narrative, expertly depicts an era in which even a whisper of Communist ties was enough to ruin a person forever, and studios were willing to use any and every weapon in their arsenals -- even resorting to paying off gangsters to do their dirty work -- to remain in power. Strikers of the future would be wise to take a page from Horne's book and learn exactly what not to do should a similar situation ever arise. If not, they might want to start stocking up on brass knuckles and wooden mallets. They're going to need them.
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|Title Annotation:||Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930 - 1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds and Trade Unionists|
|Publication:||Video Age International|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2001|
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