Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Stars, Reds & Trade Unionists

On Oct. 8, 1945, a riot erupted outside Warner Bros.' studios when thugs and the police descended on the Conference of Studio Unions picketing members. It was the ugly climax of a seven-month strike. With Hollywood now bracing for major strikes, Gerald Horne's pro-labor analysis of a bitter chapter in movie industry history is a particularly timely read and builds a compelling, and mostly convincing, case for "one of the pivotal worker struggles of the postwar era."

On Oct. 8, 1945, a violent riot erupted outside Warner Bros.’ Burbank studios when mob-hired thugs and the police descended on picketing members of the Conference of Studio Unions. It was the ugly climax of a seven-month strike, and though CSU won some concessions in the lengthy settlement of the labor dispute, a year later it would fall victim to a lockout, engineered by the studios and the rival IATSE, that led to its demise. With Hollywood now bracing for major strikes, Gerald Horne’s decidedly pro-labor analysis of a bitter chapter in movie industry history is a particularly timely read. Horne orchestrates extensive archival research to build a compelling, and mostly convincing, case for the events of 1945-46 as “one of the pivotal worker struggles of the postwar era.”

The book’s intro sets the stage, focusing on the post-World War II rise of organized crime in the U.S. and the pervasiveness of the Red Scare as factors in the decline of the organized left. Emblematic of Hollywood’s swing to the right was the hardening of the more “socially conscious” Jack Warner toward labor, in the face of Red-baiting. Subsequent chapters explore the period of the 1930s-50s from the perspective of various players in Hollywood (“Reds,” “Mobsters and Stars,” “Moguls”), so that the well-paced narrative revisits events from overlapping angles, building toward the climactic episodes of the mid-’40s.

CSU’s set decorators went on strike in March 1945 over a jurisdictional dispute with IATSE, a union built on the more traditional industrial model and headed for a time by Willie Bioff and George Browne, puppets installed by Al Capone. (There are some comical evocations of the hairsplitting logic of such disputes: “If glue were required, grips would claim jurisdiction; if wallpaper paste were involved, the painters would claim jurisdiction.”)

This was a time of especially larger-than-life characters in L.A.’s burgeoning film biz, men not so far removed from their street roots. At the center of the drama is Herb Sorrell, the former pugilist who headed CSU’s federation of craft locals with a passion for progressive unionism and no fear of violence. Sorrell and the CSU were damned as Red by studio moguls and the press, but Horne repeatedly points to evidence that the union chief was not a Communist. His main failing as a leader was his naivete about larger political and social forces at work; by the time CSU’s carpenters were locked out in 1946, those forces were beyond Sorrell’s most fervent resolve. The absence of the militant, progressive CSU, Horne asserts, made it all the easier for the studios to institute their 1947 blacklist of perceived subversives.

Horne’s labor-oriented view of the film biz provides images not often seen in Hollywood chronicles: glimpses of the stars who crossed picket lines and those who honored them; tactical discussions at SAG meetings; LAPD’s Red Squad conducting tireless surveillance of local Communists; the Culver City cops being put on the MGM payroll. Hardly ancient history, “Class Struggle in Hollywood” is a thought-provoking look at the rise and fall of a progressive force in the moviemaking industry.

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