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The Hollywood Labor Clash of 1945: Unveiling the "Black Friday" Showdown

New York NY USA-July 14, 2023 Members of SAG-AFTRA and other union supporters picket outside the HBOAmazon offices in the Hudson Yards neighborhood in New York (rblfmr/shutterstock.com)

New York NY USA-July 14, 2023 Members of SAG-AFTRA and other union supporters picket outside the HBOAmazon offices in the Hudson Yards neighborhood in New York (rblfmr/shutterstock.com)

In the vivid tapestry of Hollywood's history, a pivotal chapter unfolds in the tumultuous events of October 5, 1945. The clash that erupted at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, immortalized as "Black Friday," marked a watershed moment in the annals of class warfare within the entertainment industry.
The dispute, stemming from a bitter feud between unions, witnessed a melee involving hundreds of pickets, strikebreakers, and law enforcement. Despite the chaos—complete with batons, battery cables, chains, and clubs—no shots were fired, and remarkably, no lives were lost. The clash, though not the bloodiest in Hollywood's labor history, looms large in its lore, aptly branded as "Black Friday" by industry workers savvy in the art of self-promotion.


The roots of this legendary clash trace back to the Screen Set Decorators' walkout on March 12, 1945. Affiliated with Painters Local 1421, these 78 members triggered a seven-month war of attrition. The catalyst was a jurisdictional dispute over which union—either the established International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) or the up-and-coming Conference of Studio Unions (CSU)—would represent the set decorators in negotiations with the studios.


IATSE, a long-standing industry powerhouse, found itself challenged by the more confrontational CSU, led by the charismatic firebrand Herbert K. Sorrell. As the strike unfolded, it drew in various occupations in solidarity, signaling a potential shift in the labor dynamics of Hollywood.
By October, the strike entered its 29th week, tensions escalated, and the rival unions converged at the Warner Bros. gates on that fateful Friday. Non-striking IATSE workers sought to resume their duties, clashing with determined CSU strikers on the picket line. The ensuing melee involved tear gas, fire hoses, brass knuckles, and chaotic street fighting.


The climax of "Black Friday" left its mark with injuries, though mercifully, no lives were lost. However, the subsequent days were far from tranquil. The tension that permeated the clash lingered, manifesting in continued confrontations. Law enforcement found themselves entangled in clashes with CSU pickets, striving to pave the way for IATSE workers to resume their duties. These encounters unfolded in a backdrop of skirmishes, arrests, and hospitalizations, revealing the deep-seated animosity that persisted beyond the infamous Friday.


The reverberations of the strikes of 1945 and 1946 were not confined to the studio lots; they resonated far and wide, prompting significant legislative repercussions. In response to the turmoil within Hollywood's labor landscape, the U.S. Congress enacted the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This landmark legislation sought to address the issues stemming from jurisdictional strikes and, notably, the perceived influence of communism within the industry.
The Taft-Hartley Act bore the weight of Hollywood's labor strife, explicitly prohibiting jurisdictional strikes that had disrupted the production line. Beyond this, it mandated union leaders to publicly disavow any affiliation with communism, introducing a stringent requirement for continued recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. The legislative response underscored the broader societal concerns about ideological influences within labor unions.
As the dust settled on the Hollywood labor wars of the mid-1940s, the industry found itself navigating a changed landscape. The legislative landscape, shaped by the Taft-Hartley Act, influenced not only labor dynamics but also the broader political climate in Hollywood. The relationship between the entertainment industry and the U.S. government underwent scrutiny, laying the groundwork for subsequent investigations and shifts in industry practices.


The saga that unfolded in the aftermath of "Black Friday" transcended mere labor disputes. It became a pivotal moment in the history of Hollywood, where clashes of ideology, power struggles, and legislative responses converged to reshape the industry's trajectory. The echoes of those tumultuous days continued to resonate, leaving an indelible imprint on the narrative of Hollywood's labor struggles and societal anxieties.
The post-strike era witnessed the House Committee on Un-American Activities probing alleged communist infiltration in Hollywood. The purge of radicals from Hollywood labor, coupled with legislative changes, shaped the industry's trajectory. CSU's decline and Sorrell's retirement marked the end of an era, leaving an indelible imprint on Hollywood's labor history