Money  /  Comment

How Hollywood’s Black Friday Strike Changed Labor Across America

A 1945 union vs. studios battle set off broad right-wing hysteria—its lessons should resonate today.

It was October 5, 1945. The Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a union representing craft laborers in Los Angeles, including painters, carpenters, set designers, cartoonists, and others, was seven months into a major strike that was causing Hollywood studio moguls to panic. Although major studios, including Columbia, RKO, and Universal, had over 100 unreleased films in the can, ready to be released, the CSU’s strike actions, as well as movie theater boycotts, were an effective blow against the post-war studio system.

Now, the strikers gathered at the Warner Bros. employee entrance to protest.

The violent standoff that followed, in which strikebreakers, armed with chains, hammers, pipes, and other weapons, descended upon the workers, with county police forces closely behind, would become known in Hollywood as “Black Friday.”

With moguls, Los Angeles Police, private police forces, and organized crime on one side and striking trade unionists on the other, the episode fanned the flames of anti-communism in Hollywood, and led directly to the union’s downfall the following year. In the years to come, the strike would be used as a cudgel against progressive trade unionism inside and outside of the film industry, leading to the blunting of it in Hollywood—and in the United States, more generally.

The strike of 1945 started after the CSU became embroiled in a dispute with a rival union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The conflict centered on 77 set decorators who had broken away from IATSE, and established their own group, the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators, in 1937. The CSU initially represented these breakaway set decorators during their independent contract negotiations with some studios. Eventually, IATSE began to dispute CSU’s jurisdiction, and after studio producers sided with IATSE—contradicting an arbiter appointed by the War Labor Board—the CSU went on strike.

Competing interests in Hollywood, from studio moguls like Cecil B. DeMille, to mobsters like John Roselli, saw the unions’ dispute as a threat. It wasn’t just about disrupting the flow of capital in and out of the film industry. They also understood that cinema served—and still serves—a vital role in shaping and massaging mass consciousness. Which is why, for moguls and organized crime organizations alike, combating the perceived infiltration of Moscow-backed Reds in Hollywood was as important as any financial concern.

The knock-on effects from the Red Scare in Hollywood would resonate for decades to come, setting back progressive trade unionism in the United States for generations of workers.