Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hollywood Black Friday Riot 1945

Hollywood Black Friday is the name given, in the history of organized labor in the United States, to October 5, 1945. On that date, a six-month strike by the set decorators represented by the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) boiled over into a bloody riot at the gates of Warner Brothers' studios in Burbank, California. The strikes helped the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and led to the eventual break up of the CSU and reorganization of the then rival International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (IATSE) leadership.


The Conference of Studio Unions was, at the time, an International union belonging to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and represented the Carpenters, Painters, Cartoonists and several other crafts working for the Studios in Hollywood.

Seventy-seven set decorators broke away from IATSE to form the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators (SMPID) and negotiated an independent contract with the producers in 1937. The SMPID joined the CSU in 1943 and the CSU represented the SMPID in their contract negotiations. After the producers stalled the negotiations for nine months, IATSE questioned CSU jurisdiction over the Set Decorators which led to a further five month delay as the CSU and IATSE fought over jurisdiction. When the Producers refused to acknowledge an independent arbitrator appointed by the War Labor Board's assessment that the CSU had jurisdiction over the Set Decorators in February 1945, it set the stage for the strike.


An estimate 10,500 CSU workers went on strike in March 1945 and began picketing all the studios resulting in delays of several films including Selznick's epic Duel in the Sun and the Cole Porter story Night and Day. Unfortunately for CSU, the studios had some 130 films on the shelves at the time and were able to comfortably sit out a strike for the time being. Regardless, Disney, Monogram and several independents bargained with CSU while Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Universal, and Warner did not.

Despite orders from their leadership and threatened with fines and revocation of their cards, many members of IATSE refused to cross the picket lines or do work normally filled by members of the CSU.

Black Friday

By October, money and patience were running low as some 300 strikers gathered at Warner Brothers' main gate on October 5, 1945. Temperatures were abnormally warm for the already hot LA autumn. When non-strikers attempted to report for work at 6:00 in the morning, the barricades went up and tensions flared. As replacement workers attempted to drive through the crowd, their cars were stopped and overturned.

Reinforcements arrived on both sides as the picket increased to some 1,000 people and Glendale and Los Angeles Police came to aid the Burbank Police and Warner Security attempting to maintain the peace. When more replacement workers attempted to break through to the gate, a general melee ensued as strikers mobbed them and strikebreakers responded by attacking the strikers with chains, hammers, pipes, tear gas, and night sticks. Warner security rained more tear gas down from the roofs of the buildings adjoining the entrance. Warner firefighters sprayed the strikers with fire hoses. By the end of the day, some 300 police and sheriffs had been called to the scene and over 40 injuries were reported.

The picketers returned the following Monday with an injunction barring the police from interfering with the strike while Warner retaliated with its own injunction limiting the number of pickets at the gate. Although the violence would continue through the week, national exposure forced the parties back to the bargaining table and resulted in an end to the strike one month later but the CSU victory was a Pyrrhic one, where contentions over wording dictated by an AFL arbitration team would lead to further questioning as to CSU and IATSE jurisdiction on the set.


After meetings between IATSE and representatives of the studios in early September 1946 guaranteed IATSE workers to fill the positions of existing CSU employees, the studios came up with a plan to force CSU out of the studios once and for all. On September 23, the studios reassigned all the CSU members from construction supervisors, foremen and maintenance men to work as journeymen carpenters on "hot set", a position many of these men hadn't worked in many years and a violation of their job descriptions and cause for a union grievance.

These men protested and refused at which point they were given preprepared paychecks for their time and effectively sent home and subsequently locked out. Naturally, the pickets went back up, and the CSU was forced to assume the crushing burden of another strike.

Despite a walk-out by members of IATSE 683 film laboratory technicians in solidarity with CSU, open fighting between CSU members and studio security forces and a vote by the Screen Actors Guild to effectively turn their back on CSU hampered the CSU's efforts. This was a strike that the CSU would never recover from, lasting some 13 months before it voted to permit long-unemployed, impoverished members and supporters to cross the picket line and return to work. The CIO also came to the aid of the struggling CSU members and assisted them in finding jobs in other CIO industries.

The disorder in Hollywood helped prompt the Taft-Hartley bill which was passed in part with the studios' lobby and accusations of Herb Sorrell's (the leader of the CSU during the time of the strike) alleged Communist Party membership which prompted Sorrell and CSU's slow descent into obscurity.

Thomas Pynchon later would use some of these events as backstory in his novel Vineland.


Gerald Horne; Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930–1950 (University of Texas Press, 2001 ISBN 0-292-73137-X)
George H Dunne; Hollywood Labor Dispute: A Study in Immorality (Conference Publishing Co., 1950 ASIN B0007FXSCU)

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