Movies and Film: Unions


Because we are talking in part about the grunts of the studio system, it's worth spending a moment on the labor organizations that represent them.

The First Unions

As in other industries, the first organizations in the film industry proper were really more like craft guilds and benevolent societies, created as learning and service organizations meant to maintain high standards of quality within each craft. Early organizations formed in the 1910s and 1920s included the Friars Club for actors (still very much alive and kicking), the Screen Club, the Reel Club, the Static Club (for cameramen), the Actors' Equity Association, and the Photoplay Authors' League. At the end of the 1920s, the International Photographers, the cinematographer's union, became affiliated with the AFL (American Federation of Labor).

Short Cuts

The early show business fraternal organizations were themselves based on models that varied from the Harvard Club to ethnic and immigrantlandsmanschaften, or benevolent societies.

In fact, one of the first uses of commercial film in the United States was to break up a strike in the vaudeville industry. Vaudeville theater and circuit owners projected short films in place of the live acts that were not going on. It worked: The strike was broken.

The first film union in the United States was organized by theater projectionists in the first decade of the twentieth century. IATSE—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees—arose as one of the most independent and comprehensive labor organizations in Hollywood. Originally organized for projectionists, IATSE came to represent many other crafts as well.

Photo of early Friars Club membership; this fraternal organization was one model for many later industry unions. (The Friars Club.)

Photo of early Friars Club membership; this fraternal organization was one model for many later industry unions. The Friars Club.

Short Cuts

As an example of union repression, the founding of the Conference of Studio Unions in 1941 for those craftsmen not yet well represented was almost immediately marred by accusations that the organization was "Red." Its authority was as a consequence much weakened.

IATSE's best moment came in 1933. As a consequence of the Great Depression, the studio bosses insisted on across-the-board pay cuts of 50 percent for anyone making more than $50 per week, though no one saw these moguls mortgaging their own Beverly Hills homes. While most other sectors of the industry—actors and directors, for example—accepted the cut, IATSE did not. Instead, it threatened to send its people out on strike. The producers backed down but did not forget this negation of their authority. In the meantime, a few months later, writers got together and formed the Screen Writers Guild. Writers became some of the most activist workers in the industry. Some, like Dalton Trumbo, were severely punished for this activism during the McCarthy Era.

Unions in the McCarthy Era

Because of such successes, and despite the fact that Hollywood unions were often "proproducer," which is to say very cozy with the studio bosses, the studios were always afraid of the power of the unions, and tried several ways to contain them or break them up.

The McCarthy era was named for the most famous red-baiter of the times, Senator Joseph McCarthy; it designates an historical moment in history during which Congress and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) abrogated the Constitution by criminalizing political affiliations, making it essentially criminal to belong to the Communist Party. This was a terrific moment for breaking up unions in Hollywood. Historian and critic William Triplett sees the studios' willingness to go along with the HUAC as a way of controlling movie unions, because unions were viewed as suspiciously procommunist by American conservatives. The most visible targets of the HUAC—people like Ring Lardner Jr.—tended also to be members of the Screen Writer's Guild or other Hollywood unions. Anticommunism turned out to be simply another kind of very hypocritical and destructive union-busting.

I'm Stickin' to the Union—Not: Labor Today

Film industry unions still exist, of course, and studios don't normally try the same overt union-busting tactics of yore. Still, like other American industries, Hollywood often attempts to cut costs by evading both local taxes and union salaries by sending productions abroad: to Canada, to Central and South America, and so on. In the last few years, for example, Vancouver has become a major production center for American film. Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) was shot there. And just as American blue-collar workers are outraged at the disappearance of their jobs, so Hollywood workers are taking steps to bring this business back to the United States, including lobbying for tax cuts for California filmmakers.

As terrific as the idea of independent filmmaking is, it is sometimes also a way of getting around union workers. It is only possible to make a film for four figures (El Mariachi, 1992) if you don't use high-quality and relatively high-cost union labor.

Second Take

Before completely embracing the technology that creates realist characters digitally (as in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace [1999]), it is important to remember that some critics perceive this technology as a potential threat to actors' livelihoods. Technology as scab labor.

Second Take

Though there are union and industry definitions of the various employments, because these are not civil service jobs, and so not carefully delineated, sometimes one title covers a number of different kinds of responsibilities, depending on the way a particular studio, producer, or director defines the position. A gaffer can be an electrician and/or a location scout. Sometimes jobs overlap, as in the case of the art director and the production designer.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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