It was October 5, 1945. The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a union representing craft laborers in Los Angeles, including painters, carpenters, set designers, cartoonists, and others, was seven months into a major strike that was causing Hollywood studio moguls to panic. Although major studios, including Columbia, RKO, and Universal, had over 100 unreleased films in the can, ready to be released, the CSU’s strike actions, as well as movie theater boycotts, were an effective blow against the post-war studio system.
Now, the strikers gathered at the Warner Bros. employee entrance to protest.
The violent standoff that followed, in which strikebreakers, armed with chains, hammers, pipes, and other weapons, descended upon the workers, with county police forces closely behind, would become known in Hollywood as “Black Friday.”
With moguls, Los Angeles Police, private police forces, and organized crime on one side and striking trade unionists on the other, the episode fanned the flames of anti-communism in Hollywood, and led directly to the union’s downfall the following year. In the years to come, the strike would be used as a cudgel against progressive trade unionism inside and outside of the film industry, leading to the blunting of it in Hollywood—and in the United States, more generally.
The strike of 1945 started after the CSU became embroiled in a dispute with a rival union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The conflict centered on 77 set decorators who had broken away from IATSE, and established their own group, the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators, in 1937. The CSU initially represented these breakaway set decorators during their independent contract negotiations with some studios. Eventually, IATSE began to dispute CSU’s jurisdiction, and after studio producers sided with IATSE—contradicting an arbiter appointed by the War Labor Board—the CSU went on strike.
Competing interests in Hollywood, from studio moguls like Cecil B. DeMille, to mobsters like John Roselli, saw the unions’ dispute as a threat. It wasn’t just about disrupting the flow of capital in and out of the film industry. They also understood that cinema served—and still serves—a vital role in shaping and massaging mass consciousness. Which is why, for moguls and organized crime organizations alike, combating the perceived infiltration of Moscow-backed Reds in Hollywood was as important as any financial concern.
Studio moguls widely alleged the strike of 1945 to be Communist-led—though the Communist Party was initially opposed to the strike. CSU president Herbert Sorrell personally faced accusations by Walt Disney, IATSE leadership, and others of being a Communist dupe. (Though when he was dragged before the California Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities a year later, there was scant evidence linking him to the Communist Party—his militant trade unionism was homegrown.)
Regardless of the facts, the anti-communist hysteria of studio moguls and state and federal investigators ultimately spelled the downfall of the CSU. The congressional investigations into the alleged infiltration of communism in Hollywood and trade unions like those in which Sorrell was interrogated, resulted in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which sought to purge not only communists, but also class-conscious workers, from union leadership roles. The law severely limited the power of unions: It required union leadership to sign non-communist affidavits and outlawed jurisdictional strikes like the one enacted by the CSU.
Following on the heels of Taft-Hartley came the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which culminated in the well-known Hollywood blacklist and the eventual jailing of the “Hollywood Ten,” film industry members who refused to testify. The notorious Smith Act trials between 1949 and 1958 saw the jailing and deportation of Communist leadership, including Benjamin Davis Jr. and Claudia Jones, across the United States. The rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy saw the persecution of the gay and lesbian community under the Lavender Scare as well as the continued attack on Black radicalism. From the ashes of the destruction of the CSU also came the ascendency of former B-movie actor Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan, who had formerly served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, would go on to administer a mighty blow against unions. In 1981, as U.S. president, he fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, locking them out of federal employment for life, employing strikebreaking tactics he may have rehearsed during his anti-communist tenure in Hollywood. The knock-on effects from the Red Scare in Hollywood would resonate for decades to come, setting back progressive trade unionism in the United States for generations of workers.
Today, we are witnessing a similar parallel: In tandem with the labor actions in Hollywood and elsewhere across the country, there is a new Red Scare heralding a burgeoning neo-fascism in the United States. Ron DeSantis’s “Stop Woke” campaign, the banning of critical race theory in Florida, Arkansas, and elsewhere, the persecution of the African People’s Socialist Party, Rick Scott’s “travel ban” for socialists traveling to Florida, bipartisan hysteria over the economic rise of China and the BRICS nations, as well as antisemitic tropes like the threat of “cultural Marxism” all point in this direction.
In Hollywood, specifically, we can look to right-wing hysteria over so-called “woke” films such as Barbie and other “culture war” trends perpetrated by pundits who flirt with, if not outright endorse, anti-Blackness, anti-trans ideology, and antisemitism—often in the same breath. The perceived threat of “wokeism” and “identity politics” bear a striking resemblance to the Red Scare tactics of the 1940s and 1950s, insofar as they function as coded attempts to discredit individuals and collectives alike by coding progressive politics as adjacent with Marxism or communism—only today, instead of Moscow, Beijing has become the primary boogeyman.
But this time, the tables may be turning. When Screen Actors Guild president Fran Drescher gave a rip-roaring speech dripping with the authority of class struggle this summer, nobody accused her of being a communist for speaking out against labor conditions. Likewise, Bryan Cranston, who portrayed Trumbo in a biopic of the same name, wasn’t labeled a “Communist dupe” when he delivered a fiery, pro-union speech in July.
And in a year of unprecedented labor actions throughout the nation, the Writers Guild of America’s (WGA) months-long strike, which secured better contracts for writers in a radical victory for labor last month, and the tentative agreement the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) just reached after 118 days on the picket lines, have highlighted the efforts of the working-class members of the film industry.
The efforts go far beyond the entertainment studios, too. In August, thousands of Los Angeles city workers engaged in a one-day strike to put pressure on Mayor Karen Bass. In recent months there have also been a hotel workers strike and job actions by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers. That’s why to talk about those struggling against the citadel of capital, disproportionately cited in Southern California, it’s important to understand that what is happening in Hollywood is part of a broader labor movement.
That’s why, though some onlookers, even on the political left, have not taken the Hollywood strikes seriously, to be dismissive of the gravity of the labor movement in Hollywood is to commit a fundamental political blunder. Tinseltown has a rich, though too often unacknowledged, history of class struggle that is intimately connected with the kickoff of Red Scare politics in the 1940s and 1950s. The CSU strike provides a sober reminder of how the violent proliferation of Red Scare hysteria and anti-labor sentiment in Hollywood in the middle of the 20th century were connected, and of how far the capitalist class is willing to take its moral panics.
As we heed the lessons of this previous era, it allows us to understand why the labor actions this time around—Hollywood culture workers, United Auto Workers, the 75,000 striking Kaiser employees, graduate students, contingent faculty, and other teachers across the country, and the others too numerous to mention—portend good signs to come for labor in the United States.