- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In the annals of the bloody and sometimes lethal battles between labor, management, and law enforcement, the melee that erupted outside the entrance of Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank on Oct. 5, 1945, may not be the most notable: some concussions and contusions, cars overturned and some activists jailed. Though hundreds of pickets, strikebreakers and police tangled in the tumult — many wielding batons, battery cables, chains and clubs — no shots were fired, and, remarkably, no one was killed.
Yet the clash looms large in Hollywood lore, spotlighted for the ages under the marquee title “Black Friday” — no surprise that workers in an industry devoted to branding and self-promotion would know how to market their past.
The backstory to the most legendary episode of class warfare in Hollywood labor history is complex and convoluted, in many ways less about the bread-and-butter issues of wages and working conditions than the fratricidal nature of in-the-trenches labor politics. “Which side are you on?” asks the famous labor anthem, expecting an easy answer that the events of Black Friday might not offer up.
The spark that ignited Black Friday — actually the climax of a seven-month war of attrition — was the walk-out, on March 12, 1945, by 78 members of the Screen Set Decorators, affiliated with Painters Local 1421. “Nearly 60 percent of all production was blacked out yesterday, and 12,000 film workers made idle, as members of the Screen Set Designers, Decorators and Illustrators ‘hit the bricks’ in front of all major studios, and, joined by cardholders in a dozen top industry crafts, precipitated Hollywood’s worst labor tieup in nearly a decade,” read a front-page Hollywood Reporter story on March 13, 1945.
The precipitating cause of the action was a bitter jurisdictional dispute over which omnibus union would represent the set decorators in negotiations with management: the more conservative International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) or its confrontational, up-and-coming rival, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). Then as now, IATSE was the established union, an industry-wide powerhouse that had basically controlled the studio-system shop floor since the 1920s. For much of that time, regardless of who was the titular president, the chief operating officer was a Chicago gangster with the too-perfect moniker of Willie Bioff. The studio moguls funneled satchels of cash to Bioff and, in exchange, he kept the assembly line humming. (In 1941, Bioff was convicted of extortion and sent to Alcatraz; in 1955, retired and living under an assumed name in Phoenix, he turned the key of his pickup truck and detonated a fatal explosion.)
Bioff’s successor, Richard F. Walsh, who served as president of IATSE from 1941 to 1974 without ever being indicted, was overshadowed by Roy Brewer, the alpha personality who came to town in 1945 as IATSE’s international representative. He had two missions: to maintain IATSE’s hammerlock on Hollywood labor and to purge the union ranks of any communist influence.
In 1941, out of a sense that IATSE was a tool of the bosses — corporate and mob — the more radical CSU emerged, led by a firebrand agitator named Herbert K. Sorrell, a former boxer and member of the Motion Picture Painters Local 644. That year, he led the Screen Cartoonists Guild into a high-profile and ultimately successful strike against the Walt Disney Studio, earning the eternal enmity of Disney, who expected his animators to whistle while they worked cheap.
Sorrell’s class-conscious rhetoric and bare-knuckle tactics led Brewer to suspect he was something far worse than a mobster. Sorrell always joked that he was not a communist, but he was happy to spend their money.
As World War II wound down, Sorrell seemed to have a better read on the mood of the rank and file. After years of sacrifice, workers across the industry craved a bigger piece of the pie. After all, 90 million Americans a week went to the movies, and studio profits were soaring. CSU promised a more aggressive, worker-centric attitude.
For both CSU and IATSE, the fight over who would represent the set decorators marked a potential pivot point. As the set decorators strike drew in concentric circles of collateral occupations in solidarity (“machinists, carpenters, plumbers, office workers, cartoonists, publicists, and story analysts, and others,” as Motion Picture Herald warned on Oct. 20, 1945), IATSE sensed an unwelcome changing of the guard.
Over the long summer, CSU strikers and IATSE non-strikers battled on the picket lines and in court, trading insults, injunctions and occasional blows. For their part, the studio producers claimed to have no rooting interest in what was purely an intramural fight. “We are caught helplessly in a jurisdictional dispute,” they complained. In truth, the moguls balked at negotiating with the hardball-playing Sorrell and preferred the more accommodationist Brewer.
By early October, the strike was in its 29th week. All four sides — the studios, IATSE, CSU and the police — were frustrated and on edge. At sunup of the eponymous Friday, members of the rival unions turned out in force at the Warner Bros. gates. Non-striking IATSE workers wanted to get inside and go to work; CSU strikers on the picket line were just as determined to keep them out. When the IATSE workers tried to breach the picket line, hundreds of CSU strikers charged from their barricades. All hell broke loose.
Prepared to do battle with more than their fists, reinforcements moved in from all sides — cops, strikers and strikebreakers. “Various implements of war were used, including tear gas bombs, fire hoses, brass knuckles, clubs, brickbats, and beer bottles,” noted Variety. THR‘s account on Oct. 8 described “street fighting, tear gassing, knifing, clubbing and upsetting of cars.” Blayney Matthews, head of the Warner Bros. Studio police force, was punched in the face as he broke through the picket line. Warners firemen retaliated by letting loose two high-powered fire hoses on the strikers. The strikers regrouped and threw back bottles and stones. “Their ammunition was replenished by soaked and bedraggled women strikers,” reported the Los Angeles Times, which gave an extensive play-by-play.
After two hours of free-for-all chaos, a phalanx of 300 police and deputy sheriffs finally managed to quell the riot and clear the field. Forty people were hurt, none seriously.
The next few days were not as black as Friday, but the assemblies were hardly peaceful. The action fell into a pattern: The police charged the CSU pickets to open passages for IATSE workers, skirmishes ensued, activists were hauled off to jail or sent to the hospital, repeat. (Rather than run the gantlet at the entrance each morning, many IATSE workers bunked for the night in the studio.) Roving bands of strikers and non-strikers took the fighting into the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. The broad-shouldered Sorrell, always in the thick of the action, was hit in the face with a chain. A striking office secretary named Veronica Chalmers was arrested for possession of a blackjack.
Tense face-offs and fierce scuffles continued for the next several days. CSU held firm and doubled down with pickets at Universal, RKO Pathé, Republic, Paramount and Columbia. On Oct. 10, the cops corralled 400 strikers onto the Warners lot, read them the riot act, and ordered them to disperse. The defiant strikers responded by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” All 400 were carted off to the Burbank City Jail; the bookings took all day.
The strike of ’45 ended when Eric Johnston, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Producers of America, cut a deal with the American Federation of Labor, the umbrella organization to which both IATSE and CSU belonged. CSU was recognized as bargaining agent for the set decorators, but it would have to defend its other closed-shop agreements. Both sides claimed victory.
The truce did not last long. On Sept. 26, 1946, a second CSU-orchestrated strike, this time involving painters and carpenters, rocked the industry. Variety called the long-running 1946 sequel the “bitterest labor fight” in Hollywood history.
For the ranks of American labor and Hollywood alike, the strikes of 1945 and 1946 led to significant, even historic, blowback. On June 23, 1947, with the Hollywood labor wars very much in the background, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. The legislation prohibited the very kind of jurisdictional strikes disrupting the Hollywood production line. Ominously too, it required union leaders to disavow communism or face decertification from the National Labor Relations Board.
However, Congress was not quite finished with Hollywood. In October 1947, the House Committee on Un American Activities launched its notorious investigation into alleged communist infiltration in the motion picture industry. No less than film content and subversive artists, the influence of communism in the Hollywood unions was on the agenda.
Roy Brewer testified before HUAC as a friendly witness. CSU was completely controlled by communists, he claimed, and Sorrell was “the spearhead of communist activities in the Hollywood labor field.” Brewer assured HUAC that no matter how subversive the overpaid and ungrateful actors, directors and screenwriters were, the ranks of Hollywood labor comprised stalwart and patriotic Americans.
Between Taft-Hartley and HUAC, the radicals were soon purged from the ranks of Hollywood labor. Official Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief. “If it had not been for the good right arm of IATSE as represented by Dick Walsh and Roy Brewer, studio labor would have been in the commie column,” wrote then-THR owner Billy Wilkerson, who helped stoke fear of communism in the industry and fomented support for the infamous Hollywood Blacklist.
By 1952, CSU was defunct. Herbert Sorrell retired from the front lines of union activism — though he remained a member of the Painters Union until the day he died in 1973.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century (Columbia University Press, 2021).
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day