We know the scene. Cameras flash endlessly as charismatic actors stroll down the red carpet. Adoring fans shriek and squeal with anticipation. Ebullient television hosts fawn over onscreen performances and meticulously analyze fashion decisions. Millions of people tune in to watch the spectacle from the comfort of their own living rooms. This year, someone is bound to try and speak Na’vi. It’s the Academy Awards.
But it’s worth noting that most people working in Hollywood are not rich and famous. Most actors are not celebrities. The big stars may get awards, but it’s the smaller character actors and bit player extras who make up the body of the credit rolls. On Oscar night, it’s the stagehands and technicians who actually roll out the red carpet, turn up the lights, and get the cameras rolling. These individuals’ often-overlooked creative work is what makes Hollywood tick, and throughout the history of the industry, the clear star of the show was collective bargaining when it came to protecting their interests and giving voice to their concerns. In fact, if it weren’t for workers trying to bargain with their employers, the first Academy Awards ceremony might never have been held.
Interactive timeline: A history of labor organizing in Hollywood
The inaugural gala of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in May 1927 was essentially an elite trade symposium for the major studio producers and moguls of the industry. Only the most established actors were invited, and the awards for performances were low on the priority list. Of much greater concern at the time were economic issues of efficient production, public perceptions, and labor relations. The major producers wanted to improve the image of the industry while deflecting union activity in Los Angeles. They agreed to coordinate on friendly terms through the academy and other associations, a move that would empower them with broad and sweeping control over every aspect of film production.
The oligopolistic cartel system meant that actors and other workers in Hollywood had little input into their employment’s conditions. Working on a film involved virtually unrestricted hours, sometimes 17-hour workdays, and no required breaks for meals. Women and children, working as extras, sometimes collapsed in exhaustion. Casting calls were structured on a revolving basis where actors would be called in for a day’s work and sent home without pay if they were not needed, repeating this cycle over several weeks. When actors were able to secure work, studios structured one-sided, binding contracts that essentially made them the property of their employer for seven years or more. Their private lives, their relationships, and their political beliefs were all closely monitored.
Workers and actors had banded together independently to push back against this system of virtual indentured servitude. Many risked their careers to form unions that could effectively bargain with the powerful magistrates of the industry for safer workplaces, better pay, and more reasonable terms of employment. The American Federation of Labor had successfully targeted skilled and technical workers—the carpenters, painters, and electricians—for organization as early as the turn of the century, and these craft unions won basic agreements with the studios in 1926.
Organizing the diffuse profession was more difficult for actors. Actors’ Equity Association and other fledgling unions made early efforts to organize, but the studios simply denied their legitimacy, stonewalling negotiations. Part of the producers’ justification for creating the academy in the first place, apart from greater coordination among studio producers, was to form a kind of company union. Established actors would hold membership in the academy, discouraging them from forming or joining any genuinely independent organization, but they would have to compromise their demands with other branches of the industry, including the ownership.
Showing their true colors, one of the studio producers’ first moves after the academy’s formation was to announce proposals for salary reductions. Announcements like this always boosted enthusiasm for organizing, and this time was no different. The proposal would eventually be pulled back, but Actors’ Equity Association increased its membership. The group had made inroads at fully organizing film actors in Los Angeles, and in June 1929, Equity felt emboldened enough to stage a strike in support of the “Equity Shop” policy—where actors would only participate in studio productions where all, or virtually all, of the cast were Equity members. The strike ended in failure in August, dimming Equity’s prospects for fully organizing actors as members.
But then following the stock market crash and amid economic depression in 1933, the producers’ association announced temporary salary cuts of 50 percent for employees as one of its efficiency measures. Several established actors met in the privacy of their own homes to discuss the formulation of a new independent organization with an open membership policy, which would become the Screen Actors Guild. At the same time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established the National Recovery Act with authority to set employment codes for nearly every occupation. Studio producers proposed to maintain all of the monopolistic and exploitive work practices in Hollywood, and this incensed actors further, leading to a mass exodus from the academy.
The Screen Actors Guild did not gain official recognition from the film studios until 1937, when after joining the American Federation of Labor and threatening to strike, guild members secured their first contract with producers—minimum pay of $25 per day, $35 for stunts, and $5.50 for extras. The guild members led their first-ever strike in 1952 over filmed television commercials. The filmed work of actors is designed to be reproduced and reused, especially in the television format. The guild argued in favor of a “pay-per-play” system where actors would be compensated with residual payments each time their performances were aired or rerun, and television producers eventually agreed in contract negotiations to this system of royalties.
The motion picture industry would be transformed by the advent of new technologies over the next five decades, and workers in the industry adapted to keep pace. The Screen Actors Guild sometimes coordinated jointly with a group called the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors to negotiate contract terms for cable television, subscription television, videocassette, and videodisc. At issue in the most recent writers’ strikes were similar concerns regarding DVD and Internet replay. Profits tend to flow upward when new technologies create new revenue streams for companies, and the collective action of workers is critical to ensuring these gains are actually shared.
This sense of justice—and the felt sting of injustice—is a powerful motivating force for action. Workers in the old Hollywood studio system had plenty of cause for agitation on set and in their private lives. Their shared sacrifices established many of the organizations and systems that workers enjoy today. So, as the golden statuettes are handed out this Sunday, it is worth remembering all the people behind the scenes who make this lavish event happen. Their work, and the work of the guilds and associations that represent them, ensure a gold standard product for all of us to enjoy.
Clark, Danae. 1995. Negotiating Hollywood: The Cultural Politics of Actors’ Labor.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gray, Lois S., and Ronald L. Seeber, ed. 1996. Under the Stars: Essays on Labor Relations in Arts and Entertainment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Perry, Louis B., and Richard S. Perry. 1963. A History of the Los Angeles Labor Movement, 1911-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Prindell, David F. 1988. The Politics of Glamour: Ideology and Democracy in the Screen Actors Guild. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Screen Actors Guild website. 2010. “SAG Timeline.” (www.sag.org/sag-timeline [February 22, 2010]).
Segrave, Kerry. 2009. Film Actors Organize: Union Formation Efforts in America, 1912-1937. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
Matt Sherman is a Research Assistant for the American Worker Project at American Progress.
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