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First IATSE Strike in More Than 75 Years Looms Large Over Movies & TV

LOS ANGELES, Calif.—The International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees has set just after midnight California time on Monday, October 18 as the deadline for 60,000 film and television workers to go on strike, union president Matthew Loeb announced October 13.

Dalton Trumbo was one of the many Americans in the entertainment industry who was blacklisted around the time IATSE last went on strike.

IATSE members voted almost unanimously last month to authorize a strike, a move encouraged by the union’s leadership. It plans to continue seeking an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but the trade group, the union said, has refused to make a counteroffer to its most recent contract proposal.

“The pace of bargaining doesn’t reflect any sense of urgency,” Loeb said in the announcement. “Without an end date, we could keep talking forever. Our members deserve to have their basic needs addressed now.”

IATSE’s current contract expired July 31, but was extended until Sept. 10.

“It is incomprehensible that the AMPTP, an ensemble that includes media mega-corporations collectively worth trillions of dollars, claims it cannot provide behind-the-scenes crews with basic human necessities like adequate sleep, meal breaks, and living wages,” the union says. “Worse, management does not appear to even recognize our core issues as problems that exist in the first place.”

Another issue is that workers on some streaming projects considered “new media” get paid less, “even on productions with budgets that rival or exceed those of traditionally released blockbusters,” IATSE adds. “The explosion of streaming combined with the pandemic has elevated and aggravated working conditions, bringing 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers covered by these contracts to a breaking point. We risked our health and safety all year, working through the pandemic to ensure that our business emerged intact.”

Loeb told the Los Angeles Times before the strike-vote results were announced that “members have expressed their resolve in a way that has brought these issues to the forefront, and they’re now activated and motivated.”

“We’ve had very difficult negotiations in the past, but we’ve always been able to reach an agreement, and that’s still our goal,” he said. “These are real issues and there’s an industry problem that needs to be addressed. And the time has come. It’s unsustainable for people to work under these conditions.”

The last strike… 76 years ago 

If IATSE members walk out next week, it would be the first industry-wide strike by behind-the-camera workers since March 1945, when a dissident union called the Confederation of Studio Unions went on strike after the producers refused to recognize a newly formed local of set decorators. 

That strike was the prelude to the great purge of Hollywood leftists in 1947. IATSE Local 728, which represents motion picture set-lighting workers, describes it as the bloodiest in Hollywood history, “a story of murder, intrigue, bribery, collusion, and Communist-baiting,” with a cast of characters that included “corrupt union bosses, movie moguls, gangsters, and trade unionists.”

At the time, IATSE in Hollywood was Mob-dominated, with its leaders agreeing to no-strike contracts in exchange for kickbacks from studio bosses. But thousands of IATSE members defied the leadership and refused to cross the CSU’s picket lines, and the strike also won support from the Carpenters, building-service workers at Hollywood Park Race Track, and film-world leftists like Academy Award-nominated actor John Garfield, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and Screen Writers’ Guild President John Howard Lawson. 

On Oct. 5, 1945, picketers outside the Warner Brothers studio lot were attacked by a well-armed mob of scabs, Mob goons, and Los Angeles County sheriffs, with WB studio police tossing tear-gas canisters from the roofs of the buildings at the studio entrance.

“First, they drove through the picket lines at a high rate of speed, several cars. I think we took four people to the hospital,” CSU President Herb Sorrell recalled. “The fire hoses were dragged out; they turned them on the people’s feet and just swept them right out from under… they threw tear gas bombs… there were women knocked down… It was a slaughter.”

The CSU survived a lockout the next year, aided by a solidarity strike by IATSE Local 683, who did the crucial work in film-processing laboratories. Hollywood IATSE leader Roy Brewer tried to quash that strike by organizing an invasion of Local 683’s headquarters, but members wielding baseball bats fended it off. 

More than 1,300 picketers were arrested during the lockout, and five were sentenced to prison in 1948. By then, the CSU was drained of resources, squeezed out by battles over jurisdiction, and it and other labor militants in the industry were decimated by the purge of Hollywood leftists in 1947, a purge led locally by Brewer and Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Nationally, Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson were imprisoned on contempt charges for refusing to answer questions by the House Un-American Activities Committee about whether they were Communist Party members or could name anyone who was, and blacklisted after they were released. John Garfield, who had protested their convictions, was named as a Communist by the blacklist bible Red Channels. He told HUAC in 1951 that he had never met a Communist, and the committee pondered prosecuting him for perjury. His film career crushed, he died of a heart attack the next year, aged 39.

Trumbo went on to write the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1956 movie The Brave One under a pseudonym. The Oscar was accepted by the “front” he used for his pseudonym’s public appearances. The blacklist crumbled in 1960, after director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas publicly announced they had hired Trumbo to script the future blockbusters Exodus and Spartacus. 

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1 thought on “First IATSE Strike in More Than 75 Years Looms Large Over Movies & TV”

  1. Jacqueline Barnett, Ph.D.

    Clinicians need look no further than their own institutions to find large groups of employees facing economic and social deprivation. Racial justice in health care cannot be achieved without addressing the economic and social neglect of our low-paid colleagues. Critical to maintaining morale among our 1st line “front-liners”.
    Thanks,
    J.

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