Workers of the studios, unite!

As a number of UK sectors are currently swept by industrial action in demand for better and fairer pay and work conditions, the STUDIOTEC team collaboratively wrote this blog post which covers some historical aspects of film unionisation in the four countries of the project and highlights key episodes of industrial action supported by British, French, German and Italian film unions. We discuss examples that range from the early 1920s, a decade of profound industrial, economic and political transformation which led to the rise of authoritarian regimes in a number of European countries, to the critical aftermath of World War Two, which saw the internal restructuring of national film industries as well as their international realignment.

In the 1930s there were three main trade unions for workers in British studios: the National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees (NATKE) representing skilled and unskilled workers in studios and cinemas including carpenters, electricians, plasterers, scenic artists, mechanics, property makers, stage hands, riggers, make-up artists and projectionists; the Association of Cine Technicians (ACT) representing cameramen, cutters, editors, art directors, production managers, assistant directors, still photographers and lab technicians; and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) representing cinema projectionists but also electrical craftsmen, mostly sound engineers and recordists. Trade union recognition from the mid-1930s influenced wage agreements and by 1947 all three unions had secured agreements with employers. Industrial disputes tended to be intermittent rather than lasting for sustained periods of time, often involving only particular categories of workers.  

A strike organised by the ETU in April 1938 involved projectionists and studio electricians at the Gaumont-British studios at Gainsborough and Shepherd’s Bush. The strike’s effectiveness was weakened when all three unions did not unite for collective action. While the ACT instructed members not to break the strike by taking over the electricians’ work, some members of NATKE as well as the union’s leader Tom O’Brien, did not support the strike which ended with little gain (Chanan, 1976: 51). The ETU produced a pamphlet at the time of the strike. 

ETU Pamphlet

Another category of vulnerable workers were extras. Members of the newly formed Oriental Film Artistes’ Union (OFAU) marched in August 1939 from Denham Station to the Studios. They carried banners calling for Denham to book extras through the union rather than agencies which required them to pay a larger commission when hired for crowd scenes (Daily Herald, 4 Aug 1939: 9). Denham refused the union’s request and the police were called to disperse the protest. The OFAU was formed in 1938 to protect the interests of Asians working as extras as used at Denham for films such as The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939).  

Other examples of strikes affecting categories of studio labour include a brief hairdressers’ and make-up artists’ strike of NATKE members at Shepperton in 1947 when An Ideal Husband was being shot. American star Paulette Goddard brought her own stylist with her who had been granted a work permit by the Ministry of LabourThe strike involved more than 1,000 workers and was broken by a High Court injunction brought by British LionThe strike raised the issue of employing non-British labour in studios at a time when the unions were trying to secure reciprocal schemes with US unions for British workers to be similarly employed in Hollywood (Kinematograph Weekly, 3 Apr 1947: 7). Hairdressing skills were specialised, and much care was taken over the presentation of period styles in films such as An Ideal Husband. Here we see one of Shepperton’s hairdressers inspecting actors’ hair just before going on the set of An Ideal Husband. 

The 1920s were turbulent years for German industrial relations. The Weimar Republic was losing power and influence; economic collapse and hyperinflation meant that the promises of the new Republic’s post war agreement were becoming increasingly unattainable. 2.7 million men had returned injured or disabled from the war; 360,000 women had been widowed; and 900,000 children rendered fatherless; all of whom needed state support (Evans, 141). In the wake of the Hyperinflation of 1923, the Stinnes-Legien-Agreement of 1918 which had negotiated collective bargaining and the introduction of an eight hour working day was being, if not entirely dismantled, at least cut off at the knees. The policy of deflation sought to reduce prices and wages at the same time as it aimed to raise taxes and duties, putting considerable pressure on the average wage earner, let alone those without work (Deppe, 11). By March 1926, German unemployment had reached three million (Evans, 114). Worker unrest grew, with strikes and retaliatory lockouts continuing to be commonplace. That the government in 1928 gave financial support to workers locked out by the management of the iron and steel industry who had reneged on a deal to increase wages, came as a bitter pill to the employers in those industries (Evans, 115). 

What were the effects on the film industry? A brief and unsuccessful strike in the film industry in May 1920 sought to improve wages. In September 1921, the Zentralverband der Film- und Kinoangehörigen (a centralised union of film and cinema personnel) sought better rates of pay. Der Kinematograph of 18 September 1921, firmly on the side of the employers, reported that although Mayfilm GmbH and the Lubitsch-Gesellschaft initially showed some sympathy with the workers, both production companies toed the employers’ line on the basis that the strike was initiated before the deadline given to the employers had expired. The employers’ federation demanded that all workers return by 10 September, and those who did not were dismissed on the basis of unauthorised absence from work. As more than 6,000 were on strike, it is not clear how many lost their jobs and how many returned before the deadline. According to the Prager Tagblatt, the strike ended on 27 September 1921. 

Industrial unrest may have been quashed in the film industry, but strikes continued elsewhere throughout the decade, with May Day 1929 seeing violence on Berlin’s streets, resulting in 22 deaths and more than one hundred injuries. 

German studios were affected by external strikes, however, and these are referred to in Ufa board minutes. The summer of 1929 was a particularly disruptive time for Berlin’s film industry. Cinema owners were on strike against the Entertainment tax (Lustbarkeitssteuer) (Filmtechnik, 22 June 1929) and Ufa’s management board complained of the plasterers striking over wages, a reaction that Ufa proposed mitigating with a lump sum payment of RM 3,000 (R 109-I/1027b, 12 July 1929). Two months later the pipe layers were on strike, adding further delays to the building works at Babelsberg (19 September 1929).  

Although the German-language press reported on disruption in other national film industries including Britain (Badische Presse, ‘Streik in Londoner Filmatelier’ 11 July 1936), and Hollywood (Sozialdemokrat, 15 June 1937), evidence of strikes in the German industry disappears. The National Socialist regime changed the landscape by dismantling all free unions and enforcing its own, ideologically designed structure of employee representation. 

Similarly to Nazi Germany, it is not easy to find evidence of discontent as it might have existed among Italian film studio workers who opposed Mussolini’s fascist regime and its labour policies and ideology. While it was not compulsory to be a member of the fascist party to work in the Italian film industry, being a ‘tesserato’ of the Federazione nazionale fascista dei lavoratori dello spettacolo (the workers of the performing arts) or of the Federazione nazionale fascista degli industriali dello spettacolo (the industrialists) – that is, being registered as a party member and carrying a card that showed your political affiliation – could bring several advantages including free theatre and cinema membership! It is unclear how much political leverage these party unions had within the larger corporative system and whether they were actually able to promote and safeguard workers’ rights in the event of accidents and controversies arising in the workplace. A notable episode of peaceful dissent, which slightly pre-dates our 1930-60 focus, might give us an idea of what film unionization might have meant for the fascist regime.  

At 2 pm on 20th of August 1924, 700 film workers (other accounts give around 600, possibly including workers, technicians and a large number of extras) abandoned a filming site located in an area at the outskirts of Rome, known as Quadraro (the same site chosen some ten years later to build the iconic Cinecittà), where the Joppa gate, the Circus Maximus and other giant outdoor sets had been built for the filming of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s historical epic Ben Hur (Niblo 1925) (Solomon 2016). In agreement with the film’s management, the large group had left the filming site to go and lay flowers along the river Tiber to pay respect to the socialist Member of Parliament Giacomo Matteotti, whose remains were being transported out of Rome to his native town to receive burial (Quargnolo and Redi 1995:1). Notoriously, Matteotti had been kidnapped and murdered a few weeks earlier, on 10th June 1924, by a group of killers linked with the fascist secret police after the politician had bravely denounced, during a parliament speech, election frauds caused by fascist intimidation and violence.  

As described by the anonymous journalist of the socialist paper Avanti!, when some hundred workers returned to the filming site the morning after to resume their shift they were attacked and beaten up by a large group of black shirt ‘squadristi’ (fascist action squads) who raided the site with batons and guns. After the attack, the police closed down the site for reasons of public order and requested the film management to perform, against their will, a ‘selection’ of the personnel involved in the events. Allegedly, only those who enrolled in the fascist corporative unions were allowed to resume work. As protested by Avanti!, what happened was ‘an unprecedented abuse of power’, an ‘act of terrorism’ that ‘nobody will ever forget’ (qtd. Quargnolo, Redi 1995: 2-3).  

It took some twenty years for Italian film workers to take to the streets again to voice their protests against the ruling government. Film workers’ largest demonstration in the immediate post-war years took place in Rome on 20 February 1949. The event was covered extensively by the specialised press and the national and local newspapers, generating a wide-ranging discussion that reached the seats of Italy’s new Republican parliament elected in June 1946. Over 15,000 studio workers, technicians, actors supported by the CGIL union and producers of the national film association ANICA joined forces to denounce the ‘guilty indifference’ of the Christian Democratic government, recently elected in power, for its inability to safeguard local employment, enact the already insufficient state provisions (decree No. 16 March 1947) and guarantee domestic film quotas against Hollywood’s crushing competition (Cinema, 1949: 261). On the day of the protest, passionate speeches ‘in defence of Italian cinema’ were given in Piazza del Popolo in Rome by high profile personalities of the film industry, including Anna Magnani and Vittorio De Sica.  

Speeches turned into a march as workers flowed into the central Corso Emanuele heading towards the offices of the Direzione Generale dello Spettacolo in via Veneto, where some of the placards that accompanied the protest were eventually laid down. Some read: ‘The government is absent’, ‘Down with speculators’, ‘Let’s defend our art our culture our jobs!’ (Cinema, 1949: 296-298). According to the film magazine Cinema, the police rapid response unit known as ‘la Celere’ was called in, diverting the peaceful march of film workers quite abruptly (1949: 261). According to the national newspaper Corriere d’Informazione (1949), the police were called in to stop the march because it had not been authorised. Another ‘ploy to intimidate and divide [us]’, objected film director Giuseppe De Santis, concluding: ‘we must insist […] the battle has just begun’ (Cinema, 1949: 261).

With the exception of film actors, represented by the Union des Artistes, a long-established union in theatre circles, in the early 1930s French film professionals did not have a representative body which defended their rights and negotiated their contracts with producers or studio directors. Considering themselves above all as ‘creators’, artistic staff (scriptwriters, directors, composers, set-designers or cinematographers) even seemed reluctant to join a union, seen as the exclusive domain of the working class. Behind the glittering and somewhat bohemian image of the French film studios, presented by the film press as ‘dream factories’ where people worked together with joy and good spirit for the love of the 7th Art, workers’ conditions in the studios were rather difficult because of hazardous and over-heated work environments and often fluctuating and exhausting working hours (Lefeuvre 2021: 313-323).

Even if the making of films was largely deregulated, labour disputes did not emerge in the early years of sound. From 1933 onwards, as the international financial crisis affected the national film industry, the fall in production levels, the rise in unemployment and the numerous bankruptcies profoundly destabilized the organisation of French film studios. From 1935 onwards, the first large-scale redundancies took place. The Tobis studios were the first to be affected in October 1935, followed by the Saint-Maurice studios in November 1936 and then the Pathé studios in Joinville in September 1937. Other studios reduced their staff and lowered their salaries, prompting the first major protests among studio workers. 

The technicians’ unions, gathered within the FNSAFF (Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d’Artisans Français du Film), consisted of around 400 members including directors, scriptwriters, composers, and set designers. By 1936, the SGTIF (Syndicat Général des Travailleurs de l’Industrie du Film), created in July 1934, comprised of 3,000 members and represented the manual workers (painters, plasters, carpenters, grips, etc. (Lefeuvre 2018). It was under the SGTIF’s impetus that in the summer of 1936, in the wake of widespread social discontent, strikes and factory occupations sweeping across the country, French studio workers went on strike and occupied their workplace (Lefeuvre 2017).

Strikes were experienced as a festive moment, a ‘joyful’ communion between workers (Weil 1951). During the two weeks of occupation, film studio strikers’ daily life consisted of union meetings to discuss the demands to be made, but also of leisure activities such as ball games, ‘radio-crochet’ and, of course, film screenings. Dancing, however, was prohibited at the Joinville studios, ostensibly ‘to reassure jealous wives’ (Derain 1936). Time was also spent on the logistics of the occupation (e.g., sleeping arrangements, food supplies, cleaning the stages and workshops), often relying on the support of the neighbouring population. In the short documentary film Grèves d’occupation (1936, dir. unknown) which evokes the daily life of the Parisian strikers, one can see a large billboard painted by the Joinville strikers announcing ‘a procession of gladiators’, ‘a stilt race’ or the election of the ‘Queen of the Pathé strikers’. 

The strikes of June 1936 mark an important turning point in the evolution of the contractual conditions for French cinema professionals. On 23 June 1936, after two weeks of negotiations, the first industrial collective agreement was signed. It secured important measures including better health and safety conditions in the studios, a defined salary scale, an increase in the lowest wages, two weeks’ paid holiday and the 40-hour week. Faced with this resounding victory, many technicians, actors, and directors regretted not having participated directly in the industrial action. One of them was Jean Renoir who, in December 1936, in Le Travailleur du film, expressed his support for film workers declaring: 

Thanks to the workers. It is their action that has led to this improvement in our working conditions and if we, the artistic personnel, must have a feeling towards them, it can only be one of regret for we did not support their action more energetically, which should have been our common action (1936: 2).

The 1936 strike pushed technicians and their unions to review their positions and to participate more actively in the industrial controversies that shook the French studios in the last years of the decade. The different unions began negotiations with the producers’ association and studio directors, and between September 1936 and November 1937, more collective agreements were signed, involving different categories of workers including studio administrative employees (Lefeuvre 2017). In the short space of three years, the French studios went from complete deregulation to a situation where all the professional categories in the studios were represented and protected from the abuses of producers and studio directors. 

The social struggles of the 1930s enabled studio professionals to become aware of the common struggles that could unite them, despite the heterogeneity of their status, their levels of remuneration or their socio-cultural backgrounds. The formation of unions in which dressers, prop-makers and seamstresses mixed with directors or scriptwriters for the first time allowed for intersectoral dialogue and exchange. The war and the social struggles of the post-war period accentuated the need to collaboratively defend working standards in a context that was increasingly threatening the future of French film production. As a sign of this evolution, during the large demonstration on 4 January 1948, which denounced the Blum-Byrnes agreements and the competition from American cinema, famous stars such as Jean Marais and Simone Signoret marched for the first time alongside studio workers and technicians (in this image actors Marais and Madeleine Sologne in the front row):

‘French Cinema Must Live’

Between the early 1920s and the late 1940s workers of Western European studios gradually unionised in demand of better working standards or against discriminatory regulation. Workers’ decision to withhold their labour, to march in protest or even to occupy the studios was often stimulated by larger societal and systemic issues, such as post-war inflation, unemployment and political opposition. Whereas the 1950s were a period of infrastructural growth and prosperity for many Western European studios and their associated film companies, the 1950s were also years during which film studios’ workforce and working practices and standards internationalised considerably. We shall wait until the 1960s and 1970s for European studios to become, alongside factories and universities, political battleground for more emancipating social claims.    

References 

Anon., ‘Cine-comizio in Piazza del Popolo’, Corriere d’Informazione (21-22 Feb. 1949): 1. 

Chanan, Michael, Labour Power in the British Film Industry (London: BFI, 1976). 

De Agostini, Fabio, and Massimo Mida, ‘L’ordine non regna più a Varsavia’, Cinema, no. 10 (15 Mar. 1949): 296–98. 

De Santis, Giuseppe, ‘Piazza Del Popolo, prima o dopo’, Cinema, no. 9 (28 Feb. 1949): 261. 

Deppe, Frank and Witich Rossmann, Wirtschaftkrise Faschismus Gewerkschaften (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1981).  

Derain, Lucie, ‘La grève des studios’, La Cinématographie française, no. 919 (13 June 1936): 10. 

Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

Lefeuvre, Morgan, ‘Les grèves d’occupation de juin 1936 dans les studios : un tournant dans l’histoire sociale des travailleurs du film’, ed. Laurent Creton and Michel Marie, Le Front populaire et le cinéma français (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2017): 35-46.

Lefeuvre, Morgan, ‘Grèves rouges et syndicats jaunes : mouvement social et divisions syndicales dans les studios français (1936-1939)’, ed. Tangui Perron, L’Écran rouge. Syndicalisme et cinéma de Gabin à Belmondo (Paris: L’Atelier, 2018): 42-51.

Lefeuvre, Morgan, Les Manufactures de nos rêves. Les studios de cinéma français des années 1930 (Rennes: PUR, 2021).

Quargnolo, Mario, and Riccardo Redi, ‘Ben Hur a Roma nel 1924’, Immagine: Note di storia del Cinema, no. 33 (Winter 1995): 1–3. 

Renoir, Jean, ‘Un tout petit caillou’, Le Travailleur du film, no. 322 (December 1936): 2. 

Solomon, Jon, Ben-HurThe Original Blockbuster (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016). 

Weil, Simone, La Condition ouvrière (Paris : Gallimard, 1951).

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