B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

B.J. Widick

A Review of the Developments
Leading to the Actors’ Dispute

(25 August 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 62, 25 August 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Behind the fanfare and dramatic highlights of the present dispute of the actors and stagehands is a deeply-rooted and profound crisis in this section of the AFL, which has finally flared into the open. A review of the developments will explain the significance and scope of the crisis and answer the question so many unionists have asked: What’s it all about?

The AFL has two main organizations in the theatrical and entertainment world. The technical workers are affiliated to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, usually referred to as the stage hands union. Motion picture operators, etc., are part of this set-up.

The actors are members of one of the various unions chartered by the Associated Actors and Artists of America, known as the Four A’s. Hollywood stars, for example, are members of the Screen Actors Guild, while the night club performers, vaudeville actors, etc. were in the American Federation of Actors, the union whose internal frictions brought the crisis to a head.

Broadway stars and actors are in the famous Actors Equity Association, affiliated to the Four A’s. Radio stars are in the Federation of Radio artists, also of the Four A’s.

Racketeers Seek a Way to Muscle In

The stage hands unions have a long history of organization. About 60,000 skilled workers are members of the various organizations within the I.A.T.S.E. Total strength of the Four A’s unions is around 30,000.

The history of the I.A.T.S.E. unions has many black chapters in it. George E. Browne, international president of the I.A.T.S.E. has as one of his chief aides, William Bieff, a Chicago associate of Al Capone. Another big shot is John P. (Big) Nick, a vice-president, who is under indictment on an extortion charge. He is charged with having chiseled $20,000 from St. Louis employers in return for a guarantee that the stage hands union would not ask for wage increases.

In Hollywood, Bieff is under investigation for an alleged payment of $100,000 by film producers to him in return for guarantees similar to those Nick was supposed to have made.

Within the I.A.T.S.E., Bieff, Nick and similar elements have been urging the union to take over the jurisdiction in the actors union fields, that is, the Four A’s jurisdiction.

To put the matter bluntly, since 1937 these Chicago boys have been seeking a way to muscle in on the rich and lucrative actors union field.

Whitehead Rule Stirs Resentment

The fight within the American Federation of Actors in New York City, an affiliate of the Four A’s, gave the Chicago boys their chance, they thought.

Ralph Whitehead, executive secretary of the AFA, has long been under rank and file criticism. The AFA grew quickly in the early NRA days and obtained some contracts. But Whitehead was a ruthless dictator of the union, rank and file participation in obtaining contracts was excluded, and temporary agreements very damaging to the interests of the rank and file were made.

Resentment reached a new high this spring when an agreement was arranged between Whitehead and Billy Rose, of the New York World’s Fair Aquacade. Chorus girls rehearsed for weeks without pay, union leaders were fired, wages were poor. These conditions, combined with reports that Whitehead was using union funds for personal use, brought ugly rumors and Whitehead asked for an investigation in self-defense.

He was found guilty, after a couple of hectic union meetings in which he and Sophie Tucker, the president, sought vainly to win back the rank and file. When Whitehead and Tucker refused to abide by the decisions of the Four A’s, the parent body, the charter of the AFA was yanked, and a new provisional charter was given in this field to the American Guild of Variety Artists, headed by Eddie Cantor.

Whitehead, Tucker and others then made a private deal with Browne, president of the I.A.T.S.E. who gave them a charter without either consulting the stagehands or even his own executive board.

The fact that Joseph Padway, general counsel of the AFL, represented Whitehead during this controversy gave credence to the rumor that the AFL executive council intended to aid the stage hands union invade the actors field.

It was this situation which aroused the Hollywood and Broadway stars, who knew too much about the role of the Chicago boys to submit to the invasion without a desperate struggle.

In a series of brilliant publicity moves which exposed completely the hatched-up plot, Hollywood and Broadway stars went to bat before the executive council on the question. In the matter of jurisdiction, they easily proved by previous decisions of the AFL that the Four A’s and not the stage hands union had jurisdiction in the actors’ field. They threatened to split from the AFL rather than lose their fundamental right of autonomy.

For five hours at the AFL council meeting, Ralph Morgan president of the Screen Actors Guild, Lawrence Tibbet, Frank Gilmore, president of the Four A’s, Kenneth Thompson, executive secretary of the Screen Actors Guild and other prominent Four A’s union leaders blasted away at the crude attempt of the I.A.T.S.E. reactionary leadership to raid the actor’s field.

Progressives Win First Skirmish

The C.I.O. is already in the picture, claiming a membership of 5,000 in a stage-hands and technicians union. If the dispute between the Four A’s and the I.A.T.S.E. culminates in a strike, the C.I.O. naturally would assist the Four A’s, and perhaps break the hold of the I.A.T.S.E. in its own field.

What has been accomplished so far?

The AFL executive council was unable to take away the autonomy of the Four A’s. This is clearly a victory for proponents of democracy within the AFL.

The under-paid, badly exploited chorus girls and night club performers have a fighting chance of building the American Guild of Variety Artists into a militant union which will be able to alleviate their terrible conditions, thanks to the solidarity of the Hollywood and Broadway stars.

The Chicago boys have met with another rebuff in their persistent efforts to chisel in the rich actors’ unions.

Of course, the main struggle between the progressive elements and the reactionary elements in this section of the AFL is by no means over with. The first major skirmish, however, was won by the progressive tendencies. That is important because it gives real hope for the final outcome of the struggle.

B.J. Widick Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 6 March 2016