‘Actors on Strike’ by Eadmonn MacAlpine from Voice of Labor (New York). Vol. 1 No. 2. August 30, 1919.

‘Actors on Strike’ by Eadmonn MacAlpine from Voice of Labor. Vol. 1 No. 2. August 30, 1919.

BROADWAY has long been famous for its unusual happenings, and the Actors’ Strike is no exception. To the general public the actor and the actress have always been beings apart from the rest of the workers— stars who received fabulous salaries, or ‘”hams” who were always on the bum. Consequently the appearance of over 90 per cent, of the actors on strike caused a sensation. The announcement in the press that certain theatres were closed on account of the strike was at first taken as a joke, a kind of press-agent stunt, like the loss of some musical comedy star’s jewels.

But when the actors and actresses flocked down to the struck theatres in hundreds for the purposes of picketing, the public became intelligently interested. On the first night of the strike, the picket lines were rather disordered affairs. Groups of well dressed men and women simply blocked up the theatre entrances and engaged in friendly argument with non-striking players. The arguments became general, and in the majority of cases the public was much more interested in hearing the various sides of the case, than in attending the play.” As usual the police were posted outside the doors, but everything was so pleasant, so much good humored banter floated around and everybody seemed so much at ease, that the cops did nothing but hang about and look sheepish.

Occasionally a sergeant would break up a group with a “Here now, move along!” but everybody looked so surprised that he would enter into explanations which sounded like apologies. Immediately the group would engage the cop in argument…Finally it would move a few paces and the argument would start all over again. So the cops gave it up as a bad job. In the majority of cases the strikers were successful, and amid much shoulder-patting the particular actor or actress would be brought off to sign up with the Union.

Striking actors on 45th St.

“The Dignity of the Profession”

Outside a theatre on 48th Street one of the managers engaged a group in argument. He occupied the center of the crowd, and spluttered a lot about the “dignity of the profession.”

“I’ve been in the profession for thirty years. My wife is M, my daughter is L. I belong to a respectable theatrical family and I am entitled to a hearing from you young people…”

“Are your wife and daughter actresses?” asked one girl.

“Yes” he replied, “of course they are actresses. They’re both stars, they…”

“Then why aren’t they out on strike with the rest of us?” she said. “If they’re actresses, then they’re strike-breakers now. You’re not an actor anymore — you’re a manager.”

“Twenty years ago I worked twelve shows for twenty dollars a week, I employed B ten shows for fifteen dollars a week, I know what…”

“Well, we’re going to make that impossible,” said a striker. “That’s why you people don’t like the Equity Association.”

“Then why don’t you get together with us and talk it over? I’ll lay ten thousand dollars on the table if it can be proved that I have refused to meet the actors, but may God strike me dead if I’ll ever meet Gilmore and Mordaunt (two of the leading officials of the Actors’ Equity Association). Get rid of them and we can come to terms.”

“I think I speak for all the actors and actresses here,” said another picketer, “when I say that as soon as we find that any official doesn’t represent us, we’ll remove him; but until then we’ll stand by the men we have appointed!” The others applauded.

At this point two other managers came along and dragged the blusterer away, fearful that he might say too much.

‘Striking actors parade through Columbus Circle in the rain on Aug. 18, 1919.’

“Do You Belong to the Working Class?”

I approached some of the women. They were very eager to talk and all began speaking at once, some giving me leaflets, others declaring that they would star on strike until they won.

“This is a new experience to you people,” I said. “I would like to ask you a few questions.”

I picked out one girl, the girl who had pointed out that the manager’s wife and daughter were strike-breakers.

“Do you feel that you are members of the working class ?”

“Certainly we are.”

“The same as the stage carpenters and the electricians?” “Yes.”

“The same as the program girls, and the call boys?” “Yes.”

“The same as the women who do the scrubbing, washing, dusting — the doormen and attendants?”

“Yes. we feel that we have the same interests as all the people who earn a living out of the theatre.”

I asked the other members of the crowd if they agreed with these answers. They all agreed.

“Would you refuse to play if the stage hands went on strike in the theatre you were in?” I asked.

She hesitated. a moment. “I don’t quite understand. We are members of the American Federation of Labor; we would agree to do whatever was necessary — I suppose we would strike. Yes, I would strike in that case if the stage hands wanted me to.”

Here there was disagreement. They agreed with the idea but they didn’t understand it quite; they were of the opinion that the affiliation with the A.F. of L. covered that point.

Chorus member Billie Mason on picket duty outside Actors Equity Association headquarters.

One Big Theatrical Union

“Do you think that the theatre should be organized into One Big Union?” I asked.

A difference of opinion again arose; some maintaining that affiliation with the A.F. of L. was the same thing, others that they couldn’t be organized that way.

“Do you think that your Association should only have a say regarding hours and wages, or that it should have control over your whole life in the theatre, over the kind of plays you act in, and so forth?”

The girl answered: “The Association would act about the wages and hours, but about the other things I don’t quite get what you mean. We’re engaged to play a certain part in a certain show, we agree to do that when we sign the contract. …”

I explained: “Sometimes the theatre is used for propaganda against the workers, against Socialism and so on. After this experience would you play in that sort of a play?”

There was considerable doubt about this. Some maintained that the Union couldn’t do anything in such cases, while others maintained that it could. “I wouldn’t play in that sort of a play after this strike,” one man said. “We would be playing against ourselves.” Turning to me he said, “In the future the actors will be a lot more interested in labor troubles, and my sympathies are with the strikers from new on”

I put this same question to one of the stars, who is also a leading man in the organization. He was Very much interested, catching the idea at once. “Yon mean that there are ‘anti-Bolshevik’ plays now running in New York, for instance. I have thought about that; undoubtedly the time is coming when the actors will be able to say what type of play shall be produced. We will also exercise control over indecent plays. The managers maintain that they give the public what it wants — but in reality they pander to the worst, not the best. I would like to see the theatre take its place as one of the great educational institutions of the country. We all realize the wonderful propaganda values of the theatre. I cannot say how long it will be before we are ready for such a step, but such things happen very quickly nowadays.”

Actors Have Been Slaves

This same man informed me that nearly 95 per cent of the higher paid men and women on the stage were active in the Actors’ Equity Association. “The managers talk about the dignity of the profession,” he continued. “But it is our Association that is watchful of the best interests of the profession. There can be little dignity where people are kept in slavery. Of course a number of us have established ourselves, our work is known and we are fairly secure, but thousands are in a very different position. It is for them and for our own future that we are working, for in this profession, as we grow old we go down the scale.”

He instanced the plight of the chorus girls in some of the biggest shows, where the management takes sixty dollars out of their wages for shoes and stockings which they must surrender one week before the show closes, and which are re-sold to the next chorus.

The present deadlock was brought about by the refusal of the managers to accept the Actors’ Equity Association as the business representative of the actor. In addition the managers refuse to abide by the joint contract which was at first agreed upon.

This contract is the basis of the actors’ demands. They want it as the standard contract. It provides that the actor shall rehearse for four weeks without pay (in the case of a musical play, six weeks) and that all rehearsals required after that period shall be paid at half rates. That “eight performances shall constitute a week’s work, with the exception that nine performances shall so constitute a week’s work in theatres where it has hitherto been the custom to give nine weekly performances…” That the actor shall be entitled to two week’s pay on being fired, except during the first ten days of rehearsals, when the engagement may be terminated without notice. That the actor must pay the manager two week’s pay if he quits after the rehearsals, and that in addition he must also pay the railroad fare of his successor to the point where he joins the company.

A Mirror Up To Nature

To an outsider this contract reads as if it were all in the management’s favor. The fact that the managers are trying to dodge it is the best proof of the slavish conditions under which the actor worked previously. There is nothing revolutionary about the demands of the actors, but the spirit manifested during this strike, the awakening of these professional people to a realization of their class position as workers, augers well for the future.

It has been the aspiration of the best of the profession to make the stage mirror life, “to hold as it were a mirror up to nature.” Whatever may be said of their success in this respect on the stage, the actors have certainly portrayed very well the spirit of the times in which we live in their first strike.

The same forces which are pushing the workers in every industry toward Industrial Unionism, are acting upon the theatrical profession. The stage-hands, electricians and musicians came out in sympathy with the actors, and indeed, we understand that negotiations are now pending between the different crafts for a closer union. Irresistibly the logic of the class struggle drives the theatrical workers toward “Shop Committees,” composed of delegates elected by all the workers in each theatre, in preparation for the day when those who do the work will take over and run the theatres, for the benefit of all the working class.

The Voice of Labor was started by John Reed and Ben Gitlow after leaving Louis Fraina’s Revolutionary Age in the Summer of 1919 over disagreements over when to found, and the clandestine nature of, the new Communist Party. Reed and Gitlow formed the Labor Committee of the National Left Wing to intervene in the Socialist Party’s convention, eventually forming the Communist Labor Party, while Fraina became the first Chair of the Communist Party of America. The Voice of Labor’s intent was to intervene in the debate within the Socialist Party begun in the war and accelerated by the Bolshevik Revolution. The Voice of Labor became, for a time, the paper of the CLP. The VOL ran for about a year until July, 1920.

PDF of full issue: https://archive.org/download/VoiceOfLaborV1n4Oct011919OcrOpt/voice%20of%20labor-v1n4-oct-01-1919-ocr-opt.pdf

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