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Hollywood Is a Union Town
By Morton Thompson
April 2, 1938
Vol. 146, No. 14, p. 381-383 Culver City, California, March 14
- Hollywood is a union town. Its actors are union men. Its pickets are union pickets. Its scabs are mobbed with union thoroughness and dispatch. Its stars are as labor conscious as its carpenters. And the stronghold of unionism in Hollywood is the Screen Actors' Guild.
- Five years ago a gag about a Hollywood actor being a union man would have been good for a ripple of horror in Hollywood's drawing-rooms and for a derisive laugh along the embattled labor fronts of Eastern and Midwestern America. Stars were artists. Featured players were artists. The least conspicuous extra was an artist. The hem of Hollywood's epicene skirt was lifted gingerly and superciliously as Hollywood walked over the mud puddles of its labor problems.
- But Hollywood is a town where the least likely things happen. The incredible has now become commonplace. The Screen Actors' Guild rules the roost. It is probably on its way to becoming the richest and most powerful labor union in America. The stars have stepped down into the ranks to fight for the extras, the bit players, the masses. Their victories have been crushing and complete. What the S. A. G. dictates, the producers do. The result has been a startling betterment of working conditions, somewhat increased pay, and the discovery that the iron heel of the studios is still a heel, but that it is not iron and that it is not, in fact, any more impressive than any other heel.
- The Screen Actors' Guild really started in 1929. It started with a strike. Most Hollywood actors belonged to Equity. Equity called a strike. It wanted better working conditions than the producers were willing to grant. Equity wasn't daring enough. It told its Hollywood members who had contracts to refuse to sign new contracts. It told members with pending contracts to refuse to sign. It told members without contracts not to go to work. The brunt of the blow fell, of course, on the little fellow, the chap without a contract. The strike collapsed in twelve weeks without having accomplished much more than keeping a few hundred actors out of work.
- In March of 1930 the producers, a little worried by the abortive Equity affair, decided to organize the actors in their own way. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was thrust forward as an arbitration board. Actors got a few assurances that conditions would be bettered and a method of lodging complaints, in return for a signed agreement not to strike for five years. Most of the actors signed.
- In 1932 the Eastern banks began to send out efficiency experts to stop money wastage at the studios in which they had investments. They couldn't do much about actors with contracts, but they slashed terms for pending contracts, and by one ingenious dodge after another proceeded to snip almost in half the salaries of many a free-lance player. There were other grievances. California state labor laws stipulate that women may not work longer than sixteen hours a day. But it was pretty general knowledge that the major studios were able to control the state labor bureau. Chorus girls were worked twenty-four hours straight. Extras were kept shivering in the rain for endless hours. Stunt men risked their necks; and when they broke them the studios wouldn't pay the repair bills. Actors had no place to go to complain. True, they had the Academy established by the producers. But they were afraid to go there. They were afraid they might become known as trouble-makers and be put on the studios' famous black list. As a matter of fact, almost all who did appeal to the Academy received unfailing courtesy and fair treatment. Nine out of ten of the cases brought before the Academy were decided in favor of the actors. But not many brought cases.
- While Hollywood's famous parties raged, little coteries of sober-minded actors conferred furtively. Their deliberations were dangerous. Any hint of them, reaching the ear of a producer, unquestionably would have meant the black list—bad pictures, bad roles, joblessness. The studios had a bland one-for-all and all-for-one policy by which unruly actors were disciplined by universally shut doors. But out of these deliberations was born the S. A. G. The original members deserve mention. They included Alan Mowbray, Ralph Morgan, Kenneth Thomson. Alden Gay, Morgan Wallace, Leon Ames, James and Lucille Gleason, Bradley Page, Claude King, Ivan Simpson, Boris Karloff, Richard Tucker, Reginald Mason, Arthur Vinton, Clay Clement, Charles Starrett, C. Aubrey Smith, Willard Robertson, Tyler Brooke, and Noel Madison. At first they fared rather badly. Many persons asked to join were shocked at the thought of joining a labor movement. Then 1933 came along. That was the year in which the studios, pleading poverty, cut the salaries of every actor in Hollywood squarely in half on the plea that the cut would avert tremendous lay-offs. When the cut was accomplished, the studios proceeded to effect drastic lay-offs anyway. And virtually every studio in Hollywood declared bonuses that same year. This was a little too much even for blithe actors. In June the S. A. G. was quietly incorporated. In July it invited every actor in Hollywood to a big mass-meeting. Only a few turned out. It got sixty members. The big shots wouldn't come in. Most of the stars were still members of the Academy. Then the NRA motion-picture code was adopted, and the Academy promptly assumed the right to represent the actors.
- The producers now made a code of their own, which consisted mainly of an agreement not to bid competitively for talent. A $10,000 fine was established as a penalty for competitive bidding. It was this competitive-bidding agreement that smoked out the big names. A meeting was called at Frank Morgan's house. The Marx brothers and Charlie Butterworth spent the entire day calling every actor and actress in Hollywood. The newly founded S. A. G., shaky and pitifully small, was invited along with the rest. One of the big shots made a small speech. The gist of it was that the group gathered at Morgan's should hire someone like Arthur Garfield Hays to go to Washington as their representative. There was a considering silence. Eddie Cantor stood up. "I've apparently come here," he said, "under a misconception. If this organization isn't one that's going to help every man, woman, and child in the industry, I'll say good night!" He didn't have to say good night. Some of them sheepishly, some of them angrily, every star and featured player in the room fell in with Cantor's demand.
- The S. A. G. unit was asked to stand up and give its views on the situation. Its proposals, explained by Ralph Morgan, its first president, were so sound and its organization so ready for use that the meeting resolved to join the group, reorganize it, elect new officers, and proceed under the S. A. G. banner. Unionism had invaded Hollywood. The battle had begun. When it became known that the stars were joining the group, the membership jumped in three weeks from 81 to 4,000.
- Almost immediately the new union sent its famous two-thousand-word telegram to President Roosevelt, who countered by inviting Eddie Cantor to Warm Springs. As a result, the actors won every point on which they had attacked the producers' code and the suggestions made by the producer-managed Academy for an actors' code.
- Next the problem of extras was tackled—the most serious problem before the union today. In 1934 the Senior Guild voted the creation of a Junior Guild, to be composed of extras and bit players, and to give it its own council and governing board. The demands of the Junior Guild are made known to the Senior Guild, which then decides whether to give them its support. Overwhelmingly the Seniors have sustained all demands of the Juniors.
- The abuses heaped on bit players, extras, and stunt men had always been great. They were the victims of a stupid and lazy system which originated at Central Casting, a bureau where the name and qualifications of every extra in Hollywood are filed. Rank favoritism still flourishes at Central Casting—the same extras can be seen in picture after picture—but the extras are no longer helpless. They have bargaining power now. In the old days, when a studio called Central Casting and asked for 400 roller skaters, the lazy wretch who took the call refused to go to the trouble of digging 400 roller skaters out of the files. Instead, he drove down to a roller-skating rink, lined up 400 skaters at random, and sent them off to the studio. They were paid a top of $10 a day for their work. And they kept 400 legitimate extras out of work. That wasn't the worst of it, though. Those 400, a studio pay check hot in their hands, began to ask one another: "How long has this been going on? Let's be regular extras! Let get in on some of this gravy!" And they became extras, thousands of them.
- Now the studios rarely spend more than two and a half million dollars a year for extras. And the S. A. G. suddenly discovered that there were 23,000 extras in Hollywood. If the work had been spread out evenly, an extra could have earned only $109 a year! Perhaps 5,000 extras could make a living wage—if there were only 5,000 extras. Today by imposing dues the S. A. G. has cut down the Junior Guild population to 6,600, and of that number 500 are dancers and 800 are bit players. If an extra doesn't belong to the S. A. G. he can't get work in Hollywood. And he doesn't belong if he can't pay his dues, which are $18 a year in addition to an initiation fee of $25. Two weeks ago the membership books were closed. The Junior Guild asked that dues be high; it asked that its membership list be closed.
- In 1934 the S. A. G. affiliated with the A. F. of L. through Equity and the A. A. A. A. From 1935 to 1937 it cemented its relations with labor, mended its fences. In 1937 the producers still wouldn't negotiate with the S. A. G. The Wagner Act was validated. The producers negotiated.
- The Painters' Union called a strike. Actors passed through the painters' picket lines and were called scabs. The S. A. G. called a mass-meeting. It was evident that the producers were stalling in negotiations which demanded a guild shop and that the time was ripe for a showdown. The officers informed the meeting that they would bring back a contract signed by the producers in a week or call a strike. Afterward they realized that it was necessary to obtain a 75 per cent vote of the membership before any strike of the Senior Guild could be called. At a meeting held at his house Robert Montgomery opened without preamble: "Ladies and gentlemen, you are here to sign a strike ballot. If you sign, you may be called out on strike. You will strike—if you do strike—on behalf of the extras. We are not asking for any privileges for the Senior Guild." By the end of the week 600 Seniors had voted for the strike and 18 against. The union began to make plans to open coffee houses and restaurants to feed those who would be hard hit. Everyone figured the strike was four days off. The tension was grave.
- On Sunday morning Franchot Tone, Kenneth Thomson, Aubrey Blair, and Robert Montgomery went to Louis B. Mayer's house. Joe Schenck was there. The four told Mayer and Schenck flatly that they had to have something in writing to take to the members at a mass-meeting that night or else the strike was on. They interrupted a bridge game. Mayer was a little petulant. Schenck said it was impossible to get all the studio executives together on such short notice. Then he called Harry Cohn, who was playing the races at Agua Caliente. Cohn told him what was good enough for Schenck was good enough for him and got away from the phone in time for the fifth race. Mayer next refused to call in a stenographer. "It's Sunday!" he objected. "I've got 200 guests here!" So Kenneth Thomson wrote the historic surrender in long hand. The terms were guild shop; and Mayer and Schenck signed.
- The four went back to Fredric March's house, where the S. A. G. board was waiting. Now that the agreement was signed, they were a little worried about some of the terms. The mass-meeting that night ended their worries. The crowd tore the roof off. In another week the hand-written surrender was reduced to formal legal phraseology and formally signed, sealed, and delivered. Hollywood is a closed-shop town, now. When the Brown Derby's union waiters walked out on strike, actors refused to go through the picket lines.
- There is many a Communist in the union, for the S. A. G. doesn't care what a man's politics are so long as he doesn't bring them into the guild. A minority thinks that the Senior Guild "sold out" the extras and disagrees violently with almost everything either the Junior or the Senior Guild proposes. It is a very vocal minority and even a rather welcome one. Its latest proposal, that the Junior Guild be given equal voting powers with the Senior Guild, was voted down by the Juniors, 4,500 to 50.
- The guild has obtained almost everything it has asked for. Ninety-nine per cent of all Hollywood actors belong. The battle is now definitely over, though a few minor objectives are still being discussed. Producers are walking the straightest of straight lines. The victories have been victories for the rank and file. For themselves the stars have asked and won next to nothing.
- The important thing is that the highest stars, like the lowest extras, are vigilantly labor conscious. They are anxious to identify themselves with any and all labor movements in behalf of the under-dog. They are lending their names and their talents and their time, with unabating enthusiasm. It would be unfair to single out any individual actor as the greatest contributor. For his personal courage and incisive strategy Robert Montgomery, present president of the S. A. G., has won the respect of the producers and unstinted praise from the union and the public—a public, incidentally, which not so long ago thought of him as a movie playboy. Joan Crawford, second vice-president, has been of invaluable aid in enlisting the support of actresses. Alan Mowbray, when the organization was being planned in secret, financed the embryo S. A. G. with his personal check of $2,500. Kenneth Thomson, executive secretary, has given nearly five years of hard work and health-straining devotion. Ralph Morgan, a member of the board for five years, Chester Morris, third vice-president, Franchot Tone, James Cagney, first vice-president, Boris Karloff, assistant secretary, Noel Madison, treasurer, Murray Kinnell, assistant treasurer, and directors Edward Arnold, Humphrey Bogart, Dudley Digges, Lucille Gleason, Porter Hall, Paul Harvey, Jean Hersholt, Russell Hicks, Frank Morgan, Claude King, Fredric March, Jean Muir, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Irving Pichel, Edward G. Robinson, Edwin Stanley, Gloria Stuart, Warren William, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Young, Dick Powell, Gene Lockhart, and George Murphy are only a partial list of those who might be nominated for a labor Hall of Fame in Hollywood.