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B.J. Widick

In the Labor Unions

(9 December 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 92, 9 December 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Behind the headlines of the news that the Hollywood technicians obtained a ten per cent wage increase from the movie producers is the story of a long struggle conducted by rank and file movements within the AFL unions there.

For nearly two years, the agitation among the membership of the American Federation of Studio Workers, an affiliate of the International Alliance of the Theatrical Stage Employees, rocked the hide-bound conservatism of the union leadership.

Accuse “Czar”

William Bioff, “czar” of the AFL unions in Hollywood, was accused, among other things, of receiving a “cut” of $100,000 from movie producers to keep the union in line. Subsequently, his defense against the charge was that he had merely borrowed the money.

Conditions in the AFL unions there created a basis for the entry of the CIO through an industrial union. A National Labor Relations Board election held this fall brought victory to the AFL partly because Bioff announced a determination to obtain a wage increase for all the employees, and actually did negotiate raises for 12,000 craftsmen in the industry.

Stimulated by this success, greater sections of the AFL membership demanded wage increases. Negotiations began between Bioff and the producers.

Failure of the movie producers to yield an inch brought the threat of a strike, which could have enlisted the support of the entire I.T.A.S.E. with 40,000 movie projection workers in 25,000 theatres, tying up an industry of 250,000 employees.

Win Increase

This threat brought a last-minute compromise which was accepted by the union. A ten per cent wage increase was given to 23,000 technicians effective until Feb. 15, 1940.

The employers submitted the following written proposal to the union:

“On or about Feb. 15, 1940 you will give us an opportunity to show you that the condition of this industry makes a continuation of wage increases impossible, and further to show you that we have taken every step possible within our power to readjust our business so as to make it possible to continue without recalling these wage increases.”

The movie employers hope to prove that the wages cannot be paid, and thus the raises would be rescinded from the day they were put into effect.

In event of a disagreement, an arbitration board will be agreed upon with final decision in their hands. Of course, there will be plenty of disagreement, since the union would hardly give up the increases it has already won.

The pay increases mean a total of $3,000,000 more in wages for the workers in one year. Because of the seasonal nature of present employment the studio craftsmen actually earn only $900 a year, and the raises are a good step forward.

A Shady Past

During the negotiations the employers dug up an old conviction against Bioff for which he has not yet served his time, in an effort to discredit the union.

Actually, that conviction had nothing to do with unionism. Bioff was convicted in 1923 in Chicago of collecting money from women in the red-light section of the city.

Subsequently, he became the bodyguard of George Browne, president of the I.A.T.S.E., during a bitter and bloody inter-union fight in Chicago marked by a couple of mysterious killings.

From there he rose to vice-president of the union, a position he now holds. He was connected with the attempted raid of the I.A.T.S.E. on the Actor’s Union this fall, an attempt that failed.

The AFL unions in the movie industry would be in a much stronger position to defend themselves from the employers if the dictatorial rule of Bioff were overthrown.

Perhaps the present victories of the union on the wage issue will spur the rank and file movements in their struggle against the Bioff leadership.

A house-cleaning from below rather than allowing the courts to settle the question is the only progressive method of removing Bioff.

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