Winter 2011

Workers of Hollywood Unite

Steven J. Ross, chairman of the history department at USC and author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America, looks at the labor conditions behind the founding of the Guild.

Steven Ross1. When did the labor movement start in the film industry?

Basically from World War I, once 90 percent of American moviemaking got centered in Los Angeles, that was the moment when the movie industry began to organize. Prior to World War I, there were futile attempts by a number of studio workers to organize, and the IA got in there. During and after the war, that’s when you really started getting some serious organizing. You had writers, directors, and craftsmen all trying to form preliminary organizations. So the Motion Picture Directors Association is one of those groups. That’s one of the reasons why Louis B. Mayer created the Academy. The Academy was really created with the idea of forestalling labor organizations.

2. How would that work?

Mayer could bring the producers, directors, writers, and craftsmen into a single organization that the moguls could control. That worked for a few years. In 1927 the Academy tried to negotiate a contract with directors and the other creative workers. But by the early ’30s, the Depression and studio cutbacks led directors, writers and actors to get pissed off enough to organize.

3. What was the relationship like between directors and management in the ’20s?

Well, the MPDA was weak as a labor organization. Directors were basically on their own. They were in the weakest position of creative Hollywood. In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, the director was often treated like a plumber, just a blue-collar guy getting the parts all together in the right order, filming the film. With very few exceptions, there was no auteur; there was no idea that the director is in fact bringing a strong creative element to the final product.

4. And then moving into the ’30s and the Depression, what was going on in the labor movement in the rest of the country?

You have a whole upsurge of labor organizing in the 1930s and the biggest change was the organization of unskilled labor through the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). By 1935, you have more people belonging to these industrial unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers than you do skilled workers. But the consciousness of unionization that is sweeping the country also sweeps Hollywood. So in a sense, the actors, writers, and directors are following a larger trend of blue-collar workers who are organizing to an unprecedented extent. There is a wave of strikes and labor organizing in the early ’30s and that’s really the context for the directors. They’re being swept up in a wave of unionization that’s hitting virtually every aspect of American labor.

5. What were the labor conditions in the industry in the early ’30s that contributed to the founding of the Guild?

The basic labor conditions were you had the studio chiefs who acted as imperial czars. They did what they wanted, and could basically keep you on the set for as many hours as they wanted. There was very little control over overtime, any of those things.

6. Were there any specifi c events that made things heat up?

The thing that really helped spark the organization of directors, writers, and actors - and something you might not think about - is the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. That was a signal moment in the history of Hollywood. That was the first moment that Hollywood as a whole became political. Ironically, up till then, it was the Republicans and conservatives in Hollywood, not the liberals, who were most politically active. The election of Roosevelt really threw the entire community into the political process. One of the things that came out of it was that directors, actors, and writers all became politically active.

7.  How did the studio heads respond to that?

In 1933, the studios, led by Mayer, issued a salary cut for workers earning over $50 a week. And this was going to be a temporary cut and Mayer went to the studio with literally tears in his eyes saying we can’t survive. He institutes the cut; the other studios follow, and then the studios go ahead and make a profit and don’t return any of that. And that is what absolutely pissed people off. I believe it was [screenwriter] Albert Hackett who said Louis B. Mayer helped create more Communists than Karl Marx.

8. So is this when the labor movement in Hollywood really started to gain momentum?

Yes, then in 1934, the second thing that really helped spark a political revolt was the studios were requiring all employees to donate money to California Governor Frank Merriman’s attempt to defeat Upton Sinclair. Sinclair had said if he was elected governor, he would impose a tax on the movie industry, since it was one of the wealthiest industries in California and not paying its fair share. That led to the creation of phony newsreels that had pictures of bums streaming into California, saying that they were coming here for Sinclair. In fact, those ‘bums’ were from a scene in [the movie] Wild Boys of the Road. The forced contributions just tipped the scales. And that led many Hollywood people on the creative end to say, this is enough. That’s when the move toward unionization really blossomed.

9. Given their position and the climate of the industry at that time, how much courage did it take for individual directors and assistant directors to stand up for creative and economic rights?

Oh, I think it was very difficult. The same for actors, because the studio heads said, we’ll just replace you. And it was much more difficult to replace an actor than it was to replace a director. There were many people waiting in line for an opportunity to be directors. And very few directors had such a powerful name that the public was going to see a movie because of them. Some had more cachet than others, but by and large, they were highly replaceable.

10. In addition to creative rights, what did the directors accomplish with unionization?

What they accomplished was a kind of standardization. Now there’s governance over working conditions. That’s really one of the keys because prior to the organization of the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Writers Guild, the studios could keep you on a set as long as they wanted to. They could keep you working in conditions that were really awful, and you had very little say. All you could do was walk off the set, in which case you’d never get a job again. So this gave everyone - both above the line and below the line - more control over working conditions, over hours that they could shoot, over pay. And if there were certain kinds of physical conditions, that also would come under consideration, whereas before it didn’t matter. You could be in the middle of a hurricane - if they told you to shoot, you had to shoot.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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