||The War for the Guild
The battles to organize a writers guild lasted a decade.
"The writer is the creator of motion pictures!”
It was a manifesto. A defiant challenge. The date: April 6, 1933. The place: the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. The speaker: John Howard Lawson, shouting to an audience of nearly 200 fellow screenwriters at the inaugural meeting of the Screen Writers Guild where he had just been elected president.
“The writer is the creator of motion pictures!”
It was also a declaration of war.
“Those words,” Lawson later recalled, “were sufficient to ensure the eternal enmity of the producers against writers.”
And so they were. The decision by Hollywood screenwriters to form a protective union was the opening shot in a long and bitter war with producers that threatened not only writers but the entire motion picture industry. You could call Lawson's speech the opening salvo in “The 70 Years War.” A few ceasefires and truces have interrupted the conflict, but otherwise many of the issues, much of the rhetoric, and most of the tactics remain today.
Back in 1933, the general leading the first counterattack against writers was Irving Thalberg, a wunderkind production head at MGM and arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood. Thalberg considered himself a champion of studio writers and saw their organizing campaign as a personal betrayal. Thalberg believed that Hollywood screenwriters had nothing to complain about. “Those writers are living like kings,” he quipped. “Why on Earth would they want to join a union like coal miners or plumbers?”
The writers at that first meeting did not feel like kings. They felt abused and betrayed and enraged. The prior month, Louis B. Mayer and the other studio heads had forced a 50 percent pay cut on the contract writers as well as on other studio employees. Writers felt this cut was a ploy to maintain studio profits. (A 1935 government study revealed that at the same time as the salary cuts, executives were awarding themselves bonuses of 20 percent to 25 percent of net earnings. While Hollywood employee salaries declined by 16.1 percent, movie box office receipts rose from 78.86 percent to 84.12 percent.) The only studio employees spared pay cuts were the carpenters, electricians, and craftsmen, who happened to be protected by the only union shop in the film industry, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.
That fact was duly noted by the writing and acting communities.
The Planning Stage
There were other grievances, listed by Lawson in a 1977 Cineaste magazine: “Prior to the founding of the SWG in 1933, Hollywood writers were treated with contempt; it was not uncommon for eight or 10 writers to work on one script, with screen credit whimsically distributed among the producers' in-laws, golf partners, or bookies.” By wielding the power of credit allocation, a producer could elevate or stifle the career of a writer simply by adding or deleting a writer's name from the finished film.
This David-and-Goliath battle became a fight for survival on both sides; the sovereignty of the producers versus the writer's right to bargain as a collective organization. The producers were determined to crush the rebellion by these so-called “reds and radicals.” Thalberg vowed that the Guilds would be established at MGM, “over my dead body” (a statement more prophetic than he could have imagined). The producers viewed the formation of the Guild as nothing less than “a communist attempt to infiltrate, subvert, and ultimately take control of the motion picture business.” The producers stood firm, shoulder to shoulder behind General Thalberg and his strongest ally, the head of production over at Warners: Darryl F. Zanuck.
Like Thalberg, Zanuck felt he had great respect for writers and had maintained close relationships with many. After all, he'd been one too, beginning his Hollywood career in the 1920s as a writer, selling his second story to Thalberg in 1922, writing more than 40 silent movie scripts, many starring the celebrity dog Rin Tin Tin. And so he shared Thalberg's feelings of personal betrayal when writers attempted to unionize.
Ironically, it had been Thalberg and Zanuck who expressed opposition to the pay cuts instituted by their respective bosses (Mayer and Harry Warner), citing that the cuts severely damaged morale. When Warner refused to restore the salaries, Zanuck had a heated blowout at the Brown Derby restaurant with him. The following day, Zanuck released a statement to the press: “…I announced that the salary cuts decided on March 15 last be restored immediately. This promise has now been repudiated, and since a matter of principle is involved…I have sent my resignation to the Chairman of the Company, Mr. Jack Warner.”
Soon afterward, while the Screen Writers Guild was forming, Zanuck co-founded Twentieth Century Pictures in 1933.
Thalberg and Zanuck were not the only producers in town who appreciated the writers' contributions to the industry. In February 1933, Sam Goldwyn told the New York Times, “A writer who turns in a good story, or a director who does a fine job, is worth all the money he gets.”
But any patronizing sympathies toward writers vanished once they organized. In 1927, producers had successfully blocked attempts to unionize when, at Mayer's urging, they formed the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Although the Academy included writers, directors, and actors, it was dominated by the producers and functioned as a company union. But by early 1933, Section Seven of President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act was passed. This granted workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, opening the doors for a screenwriters union.
In addition to opposition from the producers, Guild organizers had to deal with a mutiny within their own ranks. Many writers did not go along with the idea of unionizing, some out of loyalty, others out of fear. Lawson recalled that at that first Guild meeting, he detected tension and fear in the crowd. During his speech Lawson asked the writers to sign a “pledge to strike” as a show of unity. Out of the crowd of 200, only 75 writers, including SWG vice president Frances Marion, signed the contract. This didn't deter Lawson or the others from pushing on. Lawson insisted that the writers withdraw from the producer-dominated Academy. By mid-1933, more than 400 members were in the Guild, even though officially only 268 writers were employed by the studios.
The Hollywood screenwriting community was now divided. Lawson organized the SWG along with Oliver Garret, Ralph Block, and Dudley Nichols, among others. But another group of top salaried writers like James K. McGuiness, John Lee Mahin, and Howard Emmet Rogers remained loyal to the producers. The split destroyed many long-standing friendships and business relationships.
In 1934, the writers boycotted the Academy Awards in protest against the producers' refusal to recognize the SWG. Actors joined the writers on the picket lines outside the Roosevelt hotel, where the awards were held, and such solidarity frightened the producers, fueling Thalberg's determination to crush the Guild.
By 1935, support for the SWG had grown, but they were no closer to an agreement with the studios. The struggle between writers and producers even inspired a morale-building theme song, “The Screen Writers Marching Song” by Henry Meyers.
Here Come the Judges
Then a federal court dealt a severe blow to the Guild, declaring the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. SWG continued its struggle to unionize while the court's decision was challenged. Seizing the moment, on September 25, 1935, AMPAS announced that the producers had revised the basic agreement. These Academy revisions blatantly excluded many of the requests made by the Guild: Producers still refused to supply transportation, or room and board for writers while on location, nor would writers get the right of approval before being lent out to other studios. AMPAS also left out the “no blacklist” provision, as well as the request that agreements between the producers would not restrict competitive bidding on writer's services. The Academy also insisted that producers retain the right to determine credits based on their assessment of a writer's contributions. If a writer disagreed with the producer's decision, he could appeal to the Writers Adjustment Committee of the Academy. But even if the committee sided with the writer, the producer would still be able to allocate credits.
SWG saw these moves as blatant opportunism. Obviously, the producers were leveraging the court's decision and moving to reduce the union's authority and eventually destroy it altogether. Under its recently elected president Ernest Pascal, the Guild set out to muscle up their membership base. Many writers who had not initially sided with the Guild now were outraged by the Academy's revised contract. Newcomers to the ranks included Morrie Ryskind, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Theodore Dreiser, and Lillian Hellman. This fortification emboldened the Guild, which suddenly boasted 990 members, while the membership of writers in the company-union Academy dwindled to a mere 35.
Still, the Guild needed to find some way of effectively dealing with the studios if the writers went on strike, as the producers owned a stockpile of their scripts. To gain leverage with the producers, they decided to forge a strong alliance with the existing writers guilds on the East Coast. In the summer of 1935, the leadership of SWG, the Authors League of America, and the Dramatists Guild met in Hollywood. Together they represented 90 percent of the writers in America. There had been a loose agreement among the guilds since 1933, but they now sought to form a real partnership.
Lawson, who also served on the council of the Authors League of America, felt these alliances were essential to strengthen the writer's position. “The motion picture business is essentially the business of exploitation of the creative ideas of writers,” Lawson said. This alliance would bind all writers together. It was agreed that if the screenwriters had to strike, the other guilds would refuse to sell any works to the motion picture producers. The studios denounced this tactical maneuver as a diabolical plot by the New York guilds that, in the words of Zanuck, “hate the moving picture business and hate Hollywood and make fun of it…[it's all a plot] to get a lot of writers under their control.”
The media obediently echoed that point-of-view. The April 25th issue of the producer-friendly Motion Picture Herald shouted, “WRITER DICATORSHIP LOOMS ON THE COAST WITH STRIKE WEAPON.”
Then, at the Academy Awards in February 1936, the battle between the Guild and the Academy escalated. The Academy was campaigning for MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty, produced by Thalberg, while the guilds championed The Informer and its screenplay by Nichols.
The guilds triumphed, but when Nichols won for Best Screenplay, he turned down the award. In a letter to the Academy, Nichols wrote: “To accept it (the award) would be to turn my back on nearly a thousand members of the Writers Guild, to desert those fellow-writers who ventured everything in the long-drawn-out fight for a genuine writers organization, to go back on convictions honestly arrived at, and to invalidate three years work in the Guild, which I should like to look back upon with respect…” Nichols, a founding member of the SWG, happened to be among the highest-paid writers in Hollywood.
Nichols' act of defiance was boosted by the fact that only 20 members of SAG and 13 SWG members attended the awards ceremony. This boycott of the Academy's hallowed event demonstrated solidarity among writers and actors.
In March, SWG turned up the heat by invoking Article XII of the Screen Writers Guild code, which provides that upon order of the Board, members can be ordered to refrain from contracting for their services or material for a period beyond a specific date. Guild president Pascal announced that the Board would invoke this provision and pass a resolution prohibiting SWG members from signing contracts binding their services or sale of material beyond May 2, 1938-two years from then. This would buy the Guild some time until their annual meeting May 2, 1936, when they could vote on a resolution of amalgamation with the other writers' unions.
A War Escalates
Pascal laid out the Guild's position and plans in the April 1936 issue of the Screen Guilds' Magazine in an article titled “ONE Organization for ALL American Writers.”
Guild president Pascal began with the words, “Basically the problem of all writers is the same, and always has been. It consists invariably of a struggle between the writer and businessmen, who seek to exploit that which the writer creates for monetary gain. And when, as so often happens, these businessmen gather together, as it were, into combines and corporations, then the individual writer is as helpless against them as a babe in arms.”
Pascal aimed his next shot directly at his employer, Zanuck. In a personal letter dated April 26, Pascal objected to being “branded a 'radical,' an 'agitator,' and the 'false' leader of a few 'power-seeking' individuals who wish to disrupt this industry,” clarifying that “it is ridiculous to imagine that the Guild…would ever entertain the intent of doing any act harmful or inimical to the artistic or commercial interests of the industry.”
Zanuck fired back at Pascal in a letter [see page 42]. He concluded: “I urge you, Ernest, to publicly abandon a policy which will cause more pain than it can ever remedy and which, in the long run, will only bring you misery because of your failure to effect a cure on a patient which is already strong, healthy, and normal-to wit: the moving picture industry.”
In response to Zanuck's assertion that the producer-dominated AMPAS provided the writers with protection, Dorothy Parker cracked, “Looking to the Academy for representation was like trying to get laid in your mother's house. Somebody was always in the parlor watching.”
In the meantime, Thalberg implemented a troop surge by organizing a “flying squadron” made up of four “loyal” writers. Led by McGuiness, the squadron was christened McGuiness's Flying Circus. Along with his cohorts Rogers, Mahin, and Patterson McNutt, they were dubbed the Four Horsemen. In the weeks prior to the May 2nd vote on amalgamation, this “Flying Squadron” visited studios and denounced the SWG's plans to other writers, making vague promises of high-paying assignments for those willing to abandon the Guild. They also worked to convince the other writers, especially the younger ones, that amalgamation was a closed-shop proposal contrived by communists.
Guild supporters like Hellman and Frances Goodrich Hackett retaliated by talking to the writers on the MGM lot during lunch breaks. They could not do it by phone because Thalberg had the wires tapped. It was dangerous to even discuss the SWG on studio grounds as an unofficial blacklist began on SWG supporters. “It was the first time I began to hear the word blacklist,” said Philip Dunne.
At the same time, the producers unleashed an offensive blitz against the Guild the week or so before the May 2 meeting. In What Makes Sammy Run, a fictionalized work dealing with this volatile period, author Budd Schulberg dubbed it “Ten Days That Shook Hollywood.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel The Last Tycoon also depicts Thalberg's war against the union.)
On April 26, the producers sent a telegram to all screenwriters, declaring their opposition to the amalgamation of the guilds, on the grounds that such a move would give control of the Screen Writers Guild to the East. The producers also published a statement in New York American, claiming “a few agitators among screenwriters are determined to establish a closed shop for the writing profession in the motion picture industry…If it becomes necessary to seriously fight such a movement, the producers will use every resource to fight it.” It was signed by Mayer, Zanuck, and the heads of the other five majors.
The drumbeat of war pounded louder as the May 2 vote grew nearer. Both factions, using the Daily Variety as a battleground, began to pummel each other with an arsenal of letters, statements, and editorials. The majority of the April 30 edition was devoted to the fight. The front page announced the Screen Actors Guild as an allied force that “solidly” backed the writers. Another page contained legal opinions from Neil S. McCarthy, an attorney hired by the opposition, which warned that the amalgamation would violate the U.S. antitrust law and the Cartwright Act of California. Alongside was a statement from Thalberg warning that if the controversy is not ended immediately “…motion picture writers, producers, and all others in the industry will pay a heavy price.” Nichols wrote a full-page call to arms imploring writers to, “Stand together! Vote for the amalgamation.” Variety even reprinted the crossfire letters between Pascal and Zanuck.
Two nights before the May 2 vote, the SWG board of directors held a meeting attended by the “flying squadron” members and other writers opposed to the merger. The dissenters named several points in the Authors League Constitution they thought should change. A decision was then made for the sake of unity: all would vote on the “principle” of amalgamation but postpone the legal amalgamation until certain changes could be made. Because revisions would take time, they agreed to wait until May 16 for the legal vote. In a show of good faith, the board also agreed to add McNutt and McGuiness, as well as other members of the opposition, onto the election slate of officers who would be voted on at the membership meeting. The opposing members then demanded that prominent writer Robert Riskin be added to the slate as well.
On Friday, May 1, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Thalberg presided over a producers meeting where he convinced all present to make a final attempt to squash the amalgamation. One weapon would be ordering senior producers at the various studios to talk to their writers.
The next day, about 60 writers were ordered to gather in Thalberg's projection room. Thalberg, with MGM's imposing muscleman Eddie Mannix by his side, suggested that any supporters of the Guild would face severe consequences. Writer Maurice Rapf, who was present, recalled Thalberg's words: “You've all gotten a great deal out of this industry. It's been good to you, and what you're proposing to do is give it away and turn it over to outside interests...” Thalberg also used guilt as a weapon, pointing out that a strike would not only put actors, directors, designers, etc. out of work, but that innocent carpenters, painters, electricians, janitors, and secretaries would suffer as well.
“If you wish to put all these people out of work, it is your responsibility,” Thalberg charged. “For if you proceed with this strike, I shall close down the entire plant, without a single exception.”
On the Warner Front
Meanwhile, over at Warner Bros., McGuiness, Rogers, and McNutt spoke to 30 or 40 writers. Dalton Trumbo reported that Jack Warner told the writers they were in a wonderful business. A business that treated him well and that treated them well too. So why were they “kicking it around”? He then attacked the Guild leaders as “communists, radical bastards, and soap box sons of bitches.” He also warned the writers that the producers would never tolerate the passage of Article XII and that he had $5 million in cold cash-the studio could close up tomorrow as far as he was concerned. He warned that there were a lot of writers in SWG who would find themselves out of the business for good; it couldn't be called a blacklist, as it would all be done over the phone.
The next evening, during what appeared to be a truce between the Guild and the writers who opposed it, several of the conservatives, including Mahin and McGuiness, decided to join SWG. McGuiness and McNutt announced to the crowd that they supported amalgamation “in principle.” They convinced the Guild to change the vote into a ballot on the principle of amalgamation, providing two additional weeks of consideration before taking a final vote.
The cover of the May 2 Variety trumpeted: “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Pioneer screenwriter Bess Meredyth sent out a full-page SOS to voters titled, “How Many of You Know What You Are Agreeing To?” Beginning with the blast, “I don't like to be tricked,” Meredyth decried the compromise between the East and West Guilds as “a wholly insufficient guarantee.” She charged that “…the writers, and not the issues were compromised at the Thursday night session,” declaring “I find myself unable to agree with the inclusion of Article XII…or with any sentiment looking toward an amalgamation…” She also included a lengthy legal opinion of attorney Major Walter K. Tuller to support her position.
That evening, the vote for the principle of affiliation between the guilds was unanimous. The membership voted the continuation of Article XII until negotiations began between writers and producers for a basic agreement. A feeling of unity among the writers swept over the room. An election was held to vote in a new group of board members. Pascal remained the president while Parker, Nichols, and some of the other leftists resigned from the board to make room for newly elected members that included McGuiness and Riskin, both who had voiced opposition to the Guild.
But three days later, the façade of unity crumbled when two of the newly elected board members-Bert Kalmar and Morrie Ryskind-resigned, followed by 60 members, all announcing that they were forming their own group, to be known as Screen Playwrights. The newly formed Screen Playwrights immediately voiced their opposition to the idea of a closed shop and denounced SWG as an organization controlled by radicals. By the week's end, 125 Guild members defected to Screen Playwrights, lured by offers of generous, long-term contracts and frightened by Thalberg's threats. The “plot” had worked: Thalberg's “fifth column” of pro-studio writers masquerading as union-sympathizers had undermined the organizing efforts.
But much to the surprise of the Screen Playwrights' founders, Riskin refused to resign from the SWG and voiced his anger at them for exploiting his reputation and using stall tactics to break the union. By the summer of 1936, SWG had lost almost all of its members, with the exception of a fervent core of writers including Hellman, Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, Lawson … and now Riskin.
While Thalberg's campaign immobilized the Guild, the producers quickly embraced this new organization, the Screen Playwrights. While they continued to fight the remaining SWG members, they rewarded the SP founders. Grover Jones, McGuiness, Howard Green, and Howard Estabrook were given writer-producer contracts. On the other end, several writers who supported the Guild had their options dropped. At the MGM commissary, SWG members were constantly pressured by SP members who warned, “You better get out of that commie organization or you won't be here long.”
But to Thalberg's credit, George Seaton, who later became SWG president, recalled that when he and writer Robert Pir-osh had a meeting with Thalberg, he told the writers that he disagreed with their decision to stay in the SWG but that if anybody threatened them about their job, they should come to him. Seaton remembered Thalberg assuring them, “You're entitled to your opinions,” and shook their hands, saying, “God bless you both.” And over at Fox, Zanuck renewed the contracts of SWG members Dunne and Pascal. Dunne believed that, in spite of his opposition to the Guild, Zanuck placed his appreciation of good writing above politics.
In June 1936, the American League of Authors reluctantly informed SWG that any interference from them would only serve to fuel the producer's accusations of East Coast Guild domination. And now that the once mighty SWG had its membership of nearly 1,000 strong depleted to an anemic 92 loyal members, the power of Article XII was diminished. The SWG board had no choice but to retreat and rescind the Article.
The Guild's final meeting was held in a dilapidated building on North Cherokee in Hollywood. Dore Schary remembered president Pascal's words: “There's no point in going on. We can't even pay the rent.” By late summer 1936, SWG filed a legal notice of dissolution. The war was over. The Guild was dead.
Crawling from the Wreckage
But a few original members remained and a guerilla war continued. Lawson, who had been fired from MGM for his part in founding SWG, recalled that “after the Guild fell apart, it was sustained underground, which was something unusual and dangerous for writers-the fact that they stayed together without studio support.” The clandestine meetings were held at the homes of Lawson, Parker, Hellman, Samson Raphaelson, Nichols, Lester Cole, Pascal, Stewart, Hammett, and Nathaniel West, as well as others. Detractors accused these writers of being communists, but Lawson defined them as “just individuals who saw the need for an organization, who realized that the struggle for the Guild was both economic and creative.”
The winds of war changed direction when several members of Screen Playwrights began to realize they'd been betrayed. One bargaining point they most wanted was for producers to put an end to “chiseling tactics” by directors and production executives who suggested slight changes in scripts, then claimed partial screen credit. When the producers failed to deal straight on this issue, many of the Screen Playwright members defected.
In February 1937, the Screen Playwrights studio loyalists informed producers that SWG was reforming. On April 12, 1937, the Supreme Court declared the Wagner Act, which had proclaimed collective bargaining a legal U.S. policy, constitutional. This secured the Guild's right to negotiate with producers. It also outlawed company unions, including Screen Playwrights.
This time the rallying cry was supported by hard facts. Writers who felt betrayed and abandoned the studio “union” of Screen Playwrights were now willing to fight. The newly reorganized SWG had its first open meeting June 11, 1937. More than 400 writers attended. Nichols was elected the new president. By now, opposition leader Thalberg had died, fulfilling his prophecy that the screenwriters union would enter MGM over his dead body. Yet the war between the SP and SWG continued, even though the SP was by then reduced to 100 members. The conservative SP now argued that writers were artists and therefore not eligible to unionize under the Wagner Act.
The next battle took place in a courtroom during October 1937 before the National Labor Relations Board. For 17 days producers and writers fired back and forth at each other. Then the half-million words of testimony were sent on to the national board in Washington where the final outcome would be decided.
Finally on June 7, 1938, the NLRB ruled in favor of the SWG, concluding that producers had conspired to suppress the SWG, shooting down the assertion that writers were not eligible to unionize. It was a hard-fought victory for the Guild. But the producers, along with the remaining members of the Screen Playwrights, continued to fight with the help of a new ally, IATSE. In an attempt to strengthen their union by absorbing not only the SWG, but the actors and director's guilds as well, IATSE petitioned the NLRB to withdraw protection from the creative guilds. Nichols took a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter declaring IATSE “a very real menace,” calling for the unions to stand together against the SP, pointing out “a vote for the Playwrights, or a vote for no representation at all, is a vote for the IATSE.”
On June 28, 1938, elections were held to determine which organization, SP or the SWG, would represent the writers. By this time 75 percent of the working writers in Hollywood were again members of the SWG. The results of the vote were announced at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel: more than four-to-one in favor of the SWG.
The union that had almost been annihilated a little more than a year before was now the legal collective bargaining agent for screenwriters in 18 studios. But SWG soon discovered that winning the right to bargain did not necessarily give them bargaining “power.” Even though the NLRB restated that producers must negotiate a contract with the SWG or they would be in violation of the Wagner Act, the Guild was still in need of some heavy artillery to defend their position.
The producers continued to challenge the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, while the SWG fought for an end to union busting, a minimum wage scale, and protection of rights to their works in the medium of the future-television.
The battle raged on until finally in May 1941 the SWG unleashed the only blockbuster weapon they had-a strike vote! An armistice was called, and the top brass from each party met at the Brown Derby to hash out the treaty. Armed with the threat of a strike the SWG negotiated an agreement with producers, which reluctantly and belatedly recognized the Guild as the screenwriters' sole bargaining agent. On June 18, 1941, nine years after SWG was formed, their first contract was signed. It was 17 pages long.
The final body count of writer casualties would not be determined until a few years later when the blacklist destroyed the careers of many of the Guild's proponents, including its founding father. But Lawson, who presided over the first SWG meeting in1933, was there at the final negotiation with the producers, this time in the role of a Guild board member. What must have seemed like the end of a long and fierce battle was just the beginning of an organization that today continues fighting for the rights of its 16,000 members.
Trumbo, a veteran of the 10-year conflict, summed up the struggle in a 1946 letter: “Very rarely does victory for the individual writer raise the freedom level of his fellow writers. The fight for freedom of expression in Hollywood is inextricably tied up with the fight for economic security… But the job will not be accomplished in solitude by even the most gifted individual-it will be done by organized writers.”
Pat Sierchio spent a good part of his formative years diligently watching movies and television or listening to music and turned his adolescent obsession into a career as a freelance writer and producer. His writing/producing credits include television, home video, plays, CD liner notes, and music compilations, including the infamous “Golden Throats” series for Rhino. A frequent contributor to WRITTEN BY, he has also written a collection of unread screenplays.