How often have union members asked, “What has my union done for me?” How about this: my union helped fight the blacklist.
The New York Labor History Association along with Actors’ Equity and the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives came together recently to remember a dark time in our nation’s history.
In the 1950’s, actors, union staff, and even the League of New York Theatres united to do something that no other performing arts union had done at the time: fight the blacklist
Back then, almost all union organizing was considered the work of communists. This meant that being active in a union made you a potential target.
When the House Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as HUAC, opened its hearings into the entertainment industry in 1947, entertainers were asked the classic question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” But before that, they were asked, “Are you a member of a union?”
In 1950 with the publication of “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television” the full force of the blacklist began its hold on the entertainment industry.
If a union by definition manages the common good, it can be difficult to look back and recognize that during the early 1950’s the major Hollywood unions buckled under the pressure of these investigations.
For all intents and purposes the unions were in full support of the government.
The exception was Equity.
FIGHTING THE BLACKLIST
In 1951, at the members’ behest, the Equity Council took the bold and brave step of passing a resolution condemning the blacklist.
In 1952, in concert with the League, a paragraph condemning blacklisting became standard language in Equity’s basic agreement, and as each contract came up for negotiation, the paragraph would be added.
Today this language still exists in every agreement Equity has.
EQUITY TAKES A STAND
In August 1955 HUAC came to New York City specifically to investigate the theatre community.
In essence, they were angry because so many of the people they had managed to rid Hollywood of were working openly — and under their own names — in the theatre.
They subpoenaed a group of Equity actors and other theatre and live entertainment personnel.
Of the 23 witnesses who appeared in the first four days, 22 refused to cooperate. Knowing they had the full support of their union, those with theatre jobs returned to their stages.
The committee came back one last time in 1958 and continued to find no cooperation.
During both investigations, they received little or no support from the theatre community at large.
In spite of all their efforts, there was no blacklist on Broadway.
K. Kevyne Baar, Ph.D., is a member of Equity and SAG and the archivist of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU.