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A Brief History of IATSE

Without labor nothing prospers.

Sophocles

It is written in letters of fire that the day of injustice to the working men of our craft must soon draw to a close.

- Lee M. Hart, second president of the National Association of Theatrical Stage Employes, 1895

Happy Labor Day, everyone! I hope you are having a relaxing weekend, though more likely, you are taking this long weekend to work on this fall’s shows (like I am).  Regardless of how you feel about unions in general, or IATSE in particular, there is no doubt that the history of IATSE has shaped the history of working in theatre and in props in America.

Propmen and Clearers

On July 17, 1893, seventeen men in New York City met for the first convention of the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Property-men were part of the union. Before organizing, they made fifty cents a day, and were often made to work in other departments regardless of their skills.

The rates for traveling men in 1896 were $25 a week for Property Men and $20 for Assistant Propertymen. The union grew quickly with locals springing up across the country. By 1902, it became an International Alliance with the addition of two Canadian locals. In 1903, Local 4 in Brooklyn paid Propertymen and their assistants $35 a week.

The growth of the railroad system in the late 19th century made traveling shows grow quickly in scope and scale. By 1904, around 420 touring companies traveled the country. Rail cars made it possible to transport large quantities of scenery and props. Most of the sets and props were built in the large metropolitan areas, and it was this growth in traveling shows that led to the division and specialization in labor between the various theatre crafts, as well as leading to independent scenery and prop shops. Theatres across the country sprang up and could boast shows “as seen” in New York, Philadelphia or London without needing the resources to build them themselves. The union worked quickly to establish strict departmentalization between these crafts. These touring shows also provided contact between New York stagehands and local workers, and allowed the news about unionization to spread quickly.

In March 1908, the Clearers of New York City organized into a union. Property men and their assistants were part of IATSE, but the work of setting and striking props, as well as wrapping and unwrapping them, was done by clearers. In 1915, they were admitted into IATSE as local 390. The following story from 1916 tells of one of their strikes:

The stage clearers of New York struck for higher wages yesterday as the result of a meeting of their organization held on Sunday. The clearers are assistants to the property men and their work consists of placing and removing properties from the stage. The property men direct their movements so that the work of the clearers is practically manual labor. The number used in a production depends on its nature. Sometimes where there is no change of setting none is needed, while the Hippodrome requires eighty men to move the many and heavy properties. In the theatres now open there are probably 300 or 400 clearers.

The men’s demand was made several weeks ago and representatives of the association and the United Managers’ Protective Association discussed the subject at length. The managers decided that the demand for $1.50 a performance was exhorbitant and submitted a sliding scale which would allow them to pay the men individually according to their worth.

The clearers are not affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, as are other unions of theatre employes, so the strike has no bearing on the Theatrical Protective Union No. 1, which embraces all but the lamp operators.

The managers anticipated the strike and were partly prepared. The Hippodrome was put to the most inconvenience and gives a Monday matinee. At the Palace Elmer Rogers, the house manager, helped move the properties in the afternoon, but by time for the night performance he had engaged new help.

– Stage Prop. Shifters Quit, New York Times, Sept. 12, 1916

Local 390 was absorbed into Local 1 in 1920. The international office in New York spread the word to other locals across the country and in Canada to absorb their clearers as well. Rates for road shows in 1917 were now $40 a week for Propertymen and $35 for assistants. The union grew quickly, from 1500 members in 1893 to over 21000 by 1920.

The Birth of Film

Jesse Lasky, an early film producer, turned to the theatre for the skilled workers the film industry needed. He and his partners brought Bill Bowers, a propertyman, and Wilfred Buckland, an art director, out to Hollywood. These kinds of people became the pioneers of motion picture craft. Jesse said, “It occurred to us that we could use Bill [Bowers] at the studio to take charge of obtaining all the odds and ends to dress the sets. I think Bill established the principle upon which the props departments function today, namely that a director gets whatever he asks for without argument, no matter how crazy or impossible the request.”

Local 33, Southern California’s first theatrical stage crafts labor union, saw its membership grow from 87 in January 1918 to 1626 in less than two years. 1918 also saw their first strike, as 1100 members of Local 33 walked off the sets in August and won higher wages and the right not to be fired for carrying a union card.

In 1921, the entire Building and Construction Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor united against IATSE out in California to effectively force them out of almost all movie studio work. AFL Carpenters would do all the set work, leaving only IATSE property men and set decorators – though they were not allowed to make miniature sets or even to build props out of wood! By July, a massive strike of 1200 workers shut production down for the summer, and though the AFL and IATSE began to work together to resist the producers, their alliance soon broke apart as they began crossing each others’ picket lines to go back to work. Further abuses to the workers eventually led the Carpenters to restore prop building and miniature set building to IATSE in 1924.

In 1933, another massive strike amongst Hollywood IA members occurred. The result is what some union members consider a “back-room” deal between the producers (who wished to see IATSE weakened) and other unions (eager for movie studio jobs). Specifically, grip and property work was taken from IA Local 37 and given to the Carpenter’s union. In just a few months, Local 37’s membership dropped from several thousand to 40. Overall, IATSE members working in the Hollywood studios dropped from around 9000 to 200.

The Mafia Years

With its own membership and leaders so stricken, and the labor movement in America as a whole going through some challenging times, IATSE entered its darkest period. The Chicago Mafia was looking for new revenue streams since the repeal of Prohibition, and in 1934, installed George Browne as the IATSE president. One of the men who helped this happen was William “Willie” Bioff, an associate of Frank Nitti’s gang, the successor to Al Capone. Bioff became Browne’s right hand man and the “international representative” of IATSE. Through many questionable tactics, they consolidated their power within the union. With a two-percent “assessment” on all IA member’s earnings, they were able to build up a “defense fund” of about $60000 a month to continue fighting any of the many Locals who attempted to resist them. They also received $50000 from the major studios and $25000 from the minor ones to keep wages low  and suppress potential strikes.

A 1935 agreement which gave IATSE jurisdiction over temporary electrical installations inside a studio was a huge blow to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and it caused IATSE membership to soar to 12000.

The Federated Motion Pictures Craft was a collection of craft unions not affiliated with IATSE, including painters, plasterers, stationary engineers, plumbers, molders, cooks, scenic artists, boilermakers, studio utility employees, make-up artists, hair stylists and set designers. In 1937, the FMPC called a strike for recognition as a union. About 6000 were involved. Florabel Muir of the New York Daily News reports:

There was disorder, fisticuffing, free-for-all fights. At the height of the trouble a group of strange outlanders arrived in town. Some of these men told around that they came from Chicago. Bioff… testified under oath… a few months later that all stories of the importation of Chicago gunmen to smash the F.M.P.C. strike were lies. My testimony on this point is not hearsay. I saw these fellows in action. They all drove Lincoln-Zephyr cars and obtained gun permits from the Los Angeles police. The F.M.P.C. people heard of their arrival and immediately sent to the port of San Pedro for C.I.O. longshoremen to protect them. The longies, tough mugs all, came trooping up to Hollywood eager for battle, scorning guns, brandishing only gnarled fists… Four of the Lincoln-Zephyrs filled with gunmen were attacked and rolled over bottom-side up. I saw one major engagement between the longies and the invaders near the Pico Boulevard gate of the Twentieth Century-Fox studio in which fists proved a far more potent weapon than guns.

Bioff began issuing thousands of union cards to strikebreakers, and eventually the FMPC strike fizzled. The whole ordeal had lasted six weeks with many injuries and several deaths as well.

Local 37 controlled many of the back lot crafts. “Militant” members, dubbed the “White Rats” resisted the Mafia leadership. In December 1937, the White Rats successfully sued to lift the two-percent assessment. In 1939, in retaliation for this resistance, the international organization split Local 37 into four smaller locals: Local 44 Propmakers and Set Decorators, Local 80 Grips, Local 727 Laborers, and Local 728.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, thanks in a large part to organized labor. The law established a minimum wage (25 cents an hour), a 44 hour work week (reduced to 40 hours by 1941), and time and a half for overtime.

On May 24, 1941, Browne and Bioff were indicted on federal racketeering charges in New York. Bioff was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Browne to 8. In the six years of their control, they had received $1000000 from producers, which was eventually funneled to the Nitti gang. They did, however, turn state’s evidence, which led to eight members of Nitti’s gang going to trial. Frank Nitti was also indicted, but shot himself in Riverside with $1.14 in his pocket. After his parole, Bioff settled in Phoenix, Arizona under the name William (not Willie) Nelson. His former colleagues recognized him when he took a job in Vegas, though. On November 4, 1955, he was blown up by a bomb attached to the starter motor of his pickup truck in his driveway in Phoenix.

Bloody Friday

IATSE was still not immune to the influence of other unions. The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), led by Herbert Sorrell of the Painters Union, was organizing drives to bring groups like publicists, office employees and set decorators under its jurisdiction. In 1937, seventy-seven Set Decorators had broke from IATSE to form the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators (SMPID). In 1943, SMPID became affiliated with CSU. IA propertymen were supervised by CSU set decorators. Many IA propertymen also held decorator’s cards. IATSE declared total jurisdiction of set decorators. The Painters Union claimed the CSU as the set decorator’s collective bargaining agent. On October 5, 1944, the CSU began a strike against the major studios for recognition of the set decorators. The War Labor Board ordered them back to work until a decision could be made.

In March, 1945, around 10500 CSU workers went on strike, picketing at all the major studios. IATSE, along with SAG, SWG, and SDG, crossed picket lines. CSU members used physical force to prevent non-strikers from working. Thousands of individual IA members refused to cross picket lines, despite threats of losing their cards. The Propmakers of Local 44, walked out of Warner Brothers Studios after forty-eight of their members refused to take the jobs of CSU members who were on strike. Nonetheless, IATSE, along with the producers, pushed on to permanently dismantle the CSU.

On March 27, 1945, IATSE members released this statement:

This is written and printed by members of I.A.T.S.E. Locals who are now not working because we refused to work in crafts other than our own. We took this stand as “IA” men and will continue to hold it, because we believe that here and now is the time to stop a repetition of 1933 and start laying the foundations for just labor relations in Hollywood. We believe that the untenable actions of out officials in demanding that we work outside of our craft is humiliating and against all principles of good unionism, subjecting us to the scorn and condemnation of our fellow workmen. Further, we resent the lack of consideration that our officers have shown by depriving us of our right to vote on any action taken in this dispute.

That we have the confidence and support of the majority of “IA” members is evident by these facts: Film Technicians, Cameramen, Soundmen and Costumers have all officially told Walsh that they will only perform their own work. Property Men throughout the industry have taken this stand on the job. Prop-Makers at Warners were fired in a body for refusing to do carpenter work.

(read the rest of the statement and view the original here)

On October 5, 1945, huge picket lines of about 300 strikers formed outside Warner Brothers Studios around 4AM.  In an event eventually known as “Bloody Friday”, Variety wrote:

Strikers and studio police lined up for battle before sunup Friday morning and the skirmishing began when non-strikers reported for work at six o’clock and tried to pass the picket line. Strikers deployed from their barricades, halted the non-strikers and rolled three automobiles over on their sides. By noon reinforcements arrived for both sides. Squads of police arrived from Glendale and Los Angeles to aid the Burbank cops, while the strikers increased to about 1,000, led by Herb Sorrell… When more non-strikers attempted to crash the gate, there was a general melee in which various implements of war were used, including tear gas bombs, fire hoses, knuckles, clubs, brickbats, and beer bottles. After two hours of strife, 300 police and deputy sheriffs dispersed the pickets and counted about 40 casualties, none serious.

Other reports include chains, bolts, hammers, six inch pipes, wooden mallets and battery cables amongst the weapons present. From the tops of buildings, the Warner Brothers studio police threw canisters of tear-gas into the crowds. The county sheriffs donned steel helmets, tear gas masks and night sticks. Some even carried M1 Garand rifles. Herbert Sorrell recalls:

First, they drove through the picket lines at a high rate of speed, several cars. I think we took four people to the hospital. The fire hoses were dragged out; they turned them on the people’s feet and just swept them right out from under… they threw tear gas bombs… there were women knocked down… It was a slaughter.

The next day, the picketers returned with an injunction barring the police from interfering. Warner Brothers got its own injunction to keep no more than three pickets at each gate. The next week, everyone came armed with weapons, and thirty-nine people were injured. Workers who managed to slip past the picket lines stayed in the studio all night. Others came in during the middle of the night. Violence continued throughout the week. On October 11, 300 strikers were arrested for violent behavior on the picket line.

The National Labor Relations Board voted to give the set decorators to the CSU, but the strikes and violence continued. It would be six months before a meeting was called (in Cincinnati) between producers and the unions. After several more years of legal battles, the CSU would dissolve, and by 1948, it was gone and its members were fully absorbed into IATSE. IATSE was now the dominant union in the Hollywood entertainment industry, and throughout the US and Canada.

Toward the Present

The introduction of television saw similar challenges for IATSE to represent the workers in the various crafts there, but it was not nearly as bloody or chaotic as the push into the film industry was. Theatre began to become less centralized in the fifties with the growth of regional theatres, which received a large boost in 1959 when the Ford Foundation promised financial assistance to regional companies which showed promise. It was also at this time that summer festivals began cropping up around the country. The Sixties saw the first theatrical blackout since 1919, though it was due to a disagreement between actors and producers.

The biggest challenge to union props people, and IATSE in general, during these decades was the changing landscape of the media world and the fluctuations in the overall economy. Broadway theatre nearly fizzled in the seventies, but saw a resurgence in the eighties, and is as popular today as its ever been. In a similar vein, television and movies saw the large studios break apart and reform in myriad ways, so that the work is now done in tiny chunks all over the place, rather than in a big back-lot in Hollywood, or a giant sound-stage in New York City.

IATSE was awarded Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre in 1993. By 2007, the hourly rate for a union stagehand varied widely depending on the location, ranging anywhere from $13 upwards to $50 per hour with a four-hour minimum call. Today, it contains over 550 locals representing around 100000 skilled workers.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Websites

About Local One History – http://www.iatselocalone.org/about/history.html

The IATSE history book – http://www.iatse-intl.org/about/IATSE-history/index.html

A little IATSE history – http://onenycstagehand.blogspot.com/2008/12/little-iatse-history.html

Local 728 History: The Sixtieth Anniversary of the “War for Warner Brothers” (lots of pictures and documents) – There’s so much more to the story of Black Friday that I couldn’t summarize here: Members of IATSE had their houses bombed; Ronald Reagan was involved in some of the negotiations. If you have the time, I highly urge you to read it. (The website has been taken down, but you can visit it in the Wayback Machine)

History Local 706 – http://www.local706.org/History.cfm

History of IATSE Local 58 (Toronto) – http://www.iatse58.org/downloads/Local58History.pdf

Books

City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s by Otto Friedrich.

American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power by Thomas Reppetto.

Working-Class Hollywood by Steven J. Ross.

A history of the Los Angeles labor movement, 1911-1941, by Louis B. Perry and Richard S. Perry.

Organized Crime and American Power: A History by Michael Woodiwiss