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Jurisdictional battle over control of film production workers

Photo caption: Early on-location movie making in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Source: National Archives

A jurisdictional battle broke out over who would control film production workers.  Local 33’s leaders made matters worse by clinging to the notion of home rule.  Fearing to lose their home rule authority, they turned away IA members who immigrated to Hollywood to find work.  But they could not adequately respond to incursions made by the Carpenters, so they turned to the International for help.  Between President Charles Shay, a powerful and assertive leader, and Local 33’s independent stance, they created a conflict between the International and the local that would last 40 years.

Work in Los Angeles was casual and irregular, yet productions such as D. W.  Griffith’s Intolerance required armies of technicians, laborers and extras, all on short notice.  Large, sometimes elaborate sets were built, used again and again and then destroyed.  With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, film production overseas virtually stopped.  Hollywood picked up the slack.

In response to the boom in movie production and to Local 33’s organizing difficulties, President Shay declared the local in a state of emergency and took control of its operation.  He brought in new members who were either working on permit or held cards in other unions.  These workers were offered membership in Local 33 if they surrendered their dual cards.

But the producers formed the Motion Picture Producers’ Association (MPPA) to promote open shop in Hollywood.  The producers weren’t just worried about technical workers; they feared that unionization would lead to actors, whose salaries were already enormous, organizing.  In fact, Actors’ Equity Association was already moving toward unionization.  The early efforts of Actors’ Equity in Los Angeles would eventually give life to the Screen Actors’ Guild, the actors’ principal bargaining unit in Hollywood.