Roy Brewer, the son of a blacksmith, was born in Nebraska on 9th August, 1909. He left school in 1924 and worked as a usher and projectionist at a local cinema. Later he became chief projector operator at a cinema in Grand Island, Nebraska, from where he organised a union of projectionists across central Nebraska. In 1932 he was elected as president of the Nebraska State Federation of Labor.
During the Second World War Brewer worked in Washington for a board regulating the allocation of previous materials. In 1945 he joined the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees(IATSE) and moved to Hollywood as its senior representative. According to IATSE's website: Brewer was under the control of organized crime and the Hollywood bosses: “The moguls put Brewer on the payroll and he and his Chicago thugs guaranteed low wage contracts and no strikes.” Soon afterwards Brewer took the side of the producers in their fight with the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU).
Brewer met studio bosses in secret and arranged for IATSE members to cross the picket lines. He also mounted a media campaign against the CSU leader, Herbert Sorrell, describing him as a communist and in the pay of the Soviet Union. He also joined forces with Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, in his determination to destroy the CSU.
In 1947 Brewer was appointed to the Motion Picture Industry Council. At this time the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
Brewer was interviewed in October, 1947, where claimed that he knew 13 writers, actors and directors he said were involved in communist activities. This included John Garfield and Dalton Trumbo, both of whom had volunteered to act as observers for the studio pickets in the CSU strike.
One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions.
Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.
Roy Brewer now commissioned a booklet entitled Red Channels. Published on 22nd June, 1950, and written by Theodore Kirkpatrick, a former FBI agent and Vincent Harnett, a right-wing television producer, it listed the names of 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organisations but had not so far been blacklisted.
The names included in Red Channels had been compiled from a variety of sources including a right-wing journal, Counterattack, FBI files and a detailed analysis of the Daily Worker, a newspaper published by the American Communist Party. A free copy owas sent to those involved in employing people in the entertainment industry. All those people named in the pamphlet were blacklisted until they appeared in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and convinced its members they had completely renounced their radical past. Brewer added: "I told people they had to come clean, they had to come to our side and fight the communists."
People listed in Red Channels included Larry Adler, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Joseph Bromberg, Lee J. Cobb, Aaron Copland, John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, Dashiell Hammett, E. Y. Harburg, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Zero Mostel, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Philip Loeb, Joseph Losey, Anne Revere, Pete Seeger, Gale Sondergaard, Howard K. Smith, Louis Untermeyer and Josh White.
John Garfield appeared before the HUAC on 23rd April, 1951. He answer questions and denied he ever joined the American Communist Party or knew any of its members. He did admit to being a supporter of left-wing causes and during the 1930s had spoken at Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee meetings and in the 1948 Presidential Election he had advocated the election of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate.
Donald L. Jackson questioned Garfield's account about his knowledge of what was going on in Hollywood: "Do you contend that during the seven years or more that you were in Hollywood and in close contact with a situation in which a number of Communist cells were operating on a week-to-week basis, with electricians, actors, and every class represented, that during the entire period of time you were in Hollywood you did not know of your own personal knowledge a member of the Communist Party?" Garfield replied: "When I was originally requested to appear before the committee, I said that I would answer all questions, fully and without any reservations, and that is what I have done. I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. My life is an open book. I was glad to appear before you and talk with you. I am no Red. I am no pink. I am no fellow traveler. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life."
Brewer appeared on 17th May. He testified that he did not believe that John Garfield was telling the truth. He argued that it was impossible for an actor in Hollywood and not to be aware of the power of the American Communist Party. "I do not think the opinion of one man is of much value, but I think if you could document the employment records of those individuals that were not acceptable to the Communist group as against those individuals who were in the forefront of it, I think you would find a rather substantial indication that there were influences at work. Those influences work in many, many ways. Lots of times the opinion of a secretary or of a clerk in a casting bureau can make the difference between whether one man is hired or another man is hired. I can see, from my standpoint, knowing the set-up in Hollywood, how easy it would be for an underground movement to use influence in such a way that an individual without such protection would be at a disadvantage, and I am of the definite opinion that was the case. I think it can be proven by records. I haven't attempted to do that, but in my judgment it could be done."
Brewer maintained his close friendship with Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 appointed him chairman of the Federal Service Impasses Panel, an arbitration group between federal unions and the US Government. He continued with his campaign on the left. In 1985 he said: “There are still Communists, but now they’re in the Democratic Party.”
Roy Brewer, who had ten grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren, died on 16th September, 2006.
I do not think the opinion of one man is of much value, but I think if you could document the employment records of those individuals that were not acceptable to the Communist group as against those individuals who were in the forefront of it, I think you would find a rather substantial indication that there were influences at work. Those influences work in many, many ways. Lots of times the opinion of a secretary or of a clerk in a casting bureau can make the difference between whether one man is hired or another man is hired. I can see, from my standpoint, knowing the set-up in Hollywood, how easy it would be for an underground movement to use influence in such a way that an individual without such protection would be at a disadvantage, and I am of the definite opinion that was the case. I think it can be proven by records. I haven't attempted to do that, but in my judgment it could be done.
Roy Brewer was a complex and divisive character in American social history. As leader of the craft unions in Hollywood during the 1950s he curtailed the careers of hundreds of craftsmen who he alleged had communist sympathies. He boasted that he had the power “to shut the town down”.
Confusingly for his detractors, he did this while condemning the “extremism” of witchfinders such as McCarthy and espousing the belief that ex-communist penitents should be welcomed back to the fold. He claimed that his reign over Hollywood was a battle against a clever, relentless enemy for the studios, which were nothing less than America’s social conscience. It was the same battle, he believed, that his friend Ronald Reagan later took to the world stage. Brewer became very close to Reagan during the five years of strikes after Hollywood Black Friday in October 1945, and in the triumphalism that followed the end of Soviet communism in 1991 his work gained fresh approval.
Roy M. Brewer came to Hollywood from Cairo, Nebraska. His first job, at 15, was as an usher in his local cinema. When asked to work the projector too,without a pay increase, he declared himself on strike. He became chief projector operator at a cinema in Grand Island, Nebraska, from where he organised a union of projectionists across central Nebraska.
He went to work for the War Production Board in Washington where he was responsible for finding food and housing for workers. In 1945 he joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Some, such as the writer John Meroney, would have it that “the IATSE had been controlled by organised crime, but had recently cleaned house. Brewer’s hiring represented another move away from racketeers.” Others disagree, including the union itself; the historical self-appraisal on its website stating: “The arrangement with the producers was basically the same: the moguls put Brewer on the payroll and he and his Chicago thugs guaranteed low wage contracts and no strikes.”
Certainly, IATSE was an unhappy family. Protests against Mob involvement were common, as were splits and breakaways. Far from seeking workers’ solidarity, IATSE was primarily concerned with scoring points against its rival, the Confederation of Studio Unions (CSU). When 77 set decorators left IATSE to form their own union, which then joined CSU, IATSE protested and the studios refused to accept the arrangement. The resulting strike by CSU resulted in Black Friday, also known as the Battle for Warner Brothers, at Burbank, California, on October 5, 1945. It brought some of the most violent strike-breaking tactics in US history by police, studio security and hired muscle.
Brewer met studio bosses in secret and arranged to move IATSE members across the picket lines. Eventually, he engineered a lockout that broke the CSU, whose leader, Herb Sorrell, he tried to discredit. Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, also disliked Sorrell and blamed the CSU for threatening behaviour against himself, Brewer and their families. It was Brewer, however, who called Sorrell a communist. The CSU, he claimed with absolute certainty, was in the pay of the Soviet Union.
The strike ended with hundreds out of work, Sorrell destroyed and IATSE well placed to consolidate its power. Brewer, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947, offered 13 names of writers, actors and directors he said were involved in communist activities. Among them were John Garfield and Dalton Trumbo, both of whom had volunteered to act as observers for the studio pickets in the CSU strike. Both were jailed for a year for refusing to testify.
Brewer worked to remove communists from the Hollywood craft unions. Although blacklisted screenwriters managed to work under assumed names, technicians and actors were forced to work outside the system. In 1985 he told a journalist: “I can tell in five minutes if a person is a communist. I’m never wrong.”
A great American has died, aged 97, and to the disgrace of our national media, he will not be appropriately honored. Rather, even in death, Roy M. Brewer, former leader of the Hollywood Stagehands Union, has been and will be vilified, as heroes are often defamed in an age marked by apologetics for immorality.
Known in showbiz as "the IA," the Stagehands remain one of the most powerful cinema labor organizations. Their official title is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts (IATSE, AFL-CIO). Once they absorbed the motion picture projectionists' union, they rose from a fading remnant of the early American labor movement to become the dominant representative of filmdom's vast armies of craft workers.
But the road was rough. In the 1940s, Stalinist Communists openly proclaimed their goal of controlling all unions on the U.S. West Coast, and had made the takeover of Hollywood labor a major tactical aim. The California Commies had plenty of money and plenty of clout, since the Soviet Union considered the Pacific region as important as Europe and the Atlantic in its drive for world domination. Moscow's agents had already seized control of a major section of the California Democratic party.
Four men then stood like tall, strong trees - unbending and deeply-rooted in their unions - providing an insurmountable barrier to Russian domination of the American labor movement. There was David Dubinsky of the garment workers, a veteran of armed combat by Jewish workers against the terror of the tsar and the Black Hundreds - the al-Qaida of their day - in Poland. Dubinsky's platform was firm: he would never unite with Communists, their friends and admirers, or their "progressive" and Democrat stooges. Second in line was a stern Norwegian social democrat, Harry Lundeberg of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, a veteran rank-and-file organizer. He hated the Communists with the same loathing that Dubinsky harbored, and for the same reason: both had seen the old, idealistic European socialism betrayed by Soviet imperialists. Next came Walter Reuther, a solid son of German and American socialism, who had actually worked in a Soviet auto plant before he came back to the industrial hell of Detroit to organize auto assembly line "shop rats." Reuther was beaten bloody by the company guards of the Ford Motor Co. He survived two assassination attempts. And when the time was ripe, after the Second World War had ended and Moscow had begun a new assault on the West and particularly on America, Reuther unceremoniously booted Red officials out of his United Auto Workers.
Few today know how much of the battle for American values in the union movement was carried in California. Lundeberg defeated the Communists by getting better wages and conditions for his members on the waterfront, and Reuther had gone through bruising intraunion battles against the Moscow fifth column in the gigantic southern California aircraft plants. Russia's rodents, neutralized and threatened in the key maritime and defense industries on the coast, had turned their eyes to Hollywood. At that point, only the Screen Writers' Guild was seriously plagued with Communist interference. The Actors' Guild had seen many a rhetorical battle by the Communists, but without much success to show for it. Still, Hollywood was recognized as among the most unionized communities in the world, and a Communist victory there would have had incalculable effects.
By 1945, a weird character named Herbert K. Sorrell had spent years missionizing Hollywood for the Moscow line, trying to find a way to capture some part of Tinseltown's labor force. Sorrell was not very successful as a union organizer but he had remarkable resources, including money to buy and operate his own airplane, then quite a novelty. Sorrell brought together the fringe elements of the Hollywood labor scene--the Disney cartoonists, who had lost a strike in 1941, and small unions of set painters and plumbers--to challenge the mainstream unions, especially the IA, for control of the crafts. Sorrell called bogus strikes aimed at taking jurisdiction away from the regular unions. That was when Roy Brewer stepped forward, after years as a union leader among the movie projectionists and service in the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt. The conflict between the red stooges and the well-paid and militant but patriotic union members was memorable and bloody. Communist methods in the siege of Hollywood were anything but refined.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked in the industry, summed up the nature of Stalinist domination among the dream factory's scribes: "The important thing is that you should not argue with them. Whatever you say, they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind." When Sorrell's guerrillas struck, bolstered by Stalinist thugs from the waterfront and Soviet financing conveyed through Mexico, their weapons included acid thrown in their opponents' faces. The scene was aptly described by the then-young and charismatic actor Kirk Douglas: "Thousands of people fought in the middle of the street with knives, clubs, battery cables, brass knuckles, and chains."
Brewer, his union, and their allies defeated the Communists. But the chaos in Hollywood led the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities to hold hearings on the movie industry in 1947. We could say "the rest is history" - except that it isn't. In place of real and verifiable history, a labyrinthine legend about Hollywood - a kind of mental virus of a kind only morbid psychology could understand - came to infect the American mind. A handful of mediocre Moscow-lovers, having thrown loud and provocative tantrums before the House committee, were sent to jail for contempt of Congress - they were soon known as the "Hollywood Ten." The American cinema industry got a worldwide reputation as the place where innocent people were blacklisted for their benevolent, liberal notions - rather than losing employment because of their strident advocacy for Joseph Stalin and his crimes. And Roy Brewer was tagged the master of the blacklist.
All those lousy movies about the blacklist were and are based on a lie. Ronald Reagan, a sympathizer of the liberal-left in Hollywood labor, learned bitter lessons about Communism from the war against the IA and Brewer. Reagan came out for Brewer, of course, and years later, as president of the United States, applied the lessons of the Hollywood labor war - that the Communists were brutes and bluffers who could be defeated by committed opposition - served him, and the world, well.
It is remarkable how few things have changed. Totalitarians and those weak in resistance to them are still challenged by a few indomitable moral figures - but the principles of freedom still prevail. With the death of Roy Brewer, hero of Hollywood labor, the last of American labor's four giants is gone. They were giants in those days. How many of us or those who come after us will live up to their example?
Hollywood witch-hunter Roy Brewer, who has died aged 97, boasted that he could "tell who's a communist in five minutes, I'm never wrong". He denied making blacklists, but announced names, destroyed careers and was unrepentant to the end. "No motion picture made by communists can be good for America," he said. Among his targets was the Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who wrote Roman Holiday (1953) under an assumed name after he had been blacklisted.
Brewer became a friend of Ronald Reagan before he was nominated head of the Screen Actors' Guild in 1947. In 1949 he was named co-chairman, with Reagan, of the American Federation of Labour's film council, which represented 17 unions. President Reagan appointed Brewer to a labour relations committee in 1983.
Brewer was born in Cairo, Nebraska, in 1909, the son of a blacksmith. He took up work as a movie projectionist in the days when that craft was close to art and danger (the film-stock was nitrate and it easily caught fire). He joined the projectionists' union and was promoted. And by 1945, he was leader of IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators). This was a grab-bag union for just about anyone not covered by the craft unions (i.e. the writers, directors and actors). It covered theatre projectionists, studio laborers, set builders, carpenters and so on.
In theory, it had the interests of labour at heart in one of the most extravagant and profitable of American industries. But the history at IATSE was of leaders who had made their private deals with the studios - a practice later employed by the Teamsters - of getting "insurance" payments: for a consideration, there would be no strike. Over the years, two IATSE leaders had probably skimmed $15 million from the studios. Their names were George Browne and Willie Bioff and they both ended in prison. It was as part of the "clean-up" operation that followed that Roy Brewer came to Hollywood and took over.
No one ever accused him of personal corruption, but he had another angle. As a defender of organized labour, he decided that the Communists must be the defining enemy in the picture business. As the sucker who played right into his hands, just after the war, Herbert Sorrell was just trying to radicalize Hollywood unions as part of the new world order. Sorrell was certainly a leftist and he probably had naive Communist associations. But he thought he could mount a rival to IATSE, the Conference of Studio Unions, to get better terms. He was misguided enough to call for a strike, in 1945-6, which was gingerly supported by the leftist elements in the Writers' Guild and the Actors' Guild. There were pickets, charges, and there was violence on the streets and serious work stoppages. And there was Roy Brewer explaining to the American people that it was all the work of that terrible Red influence so notable in Hollywood movies.
That description was a travesty of the facts, but Brewer had powerful allies in Washington and the mood in America was paranoid. A year later, 1947, saw the first hearings on the motion picture industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee. And Roy Brewer was their earnest supporter. For the next ten years, without any other official position than his leadership of IATSE, he was the enforcer of the black-list. You couldn't work unless Roy put a tick against your name.
It was in 1947, too, that Ronald Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild - at which time, by his own admission, he was a Roosevelt liberal. Roy was one of the men who taught Ronnie the facts of political life, who swayed him to the right and persuaded SAG to keep quiet about some of its own members being put out of work.
Brewer's power went far beyond matters of access and negotiation. He began to be the man studios sought out to approve dangerous projects. For example, at Columbia in the late 1940s, the studio head Harry Cohn was proceeding with a project called The Hook - about labour conditions on the Hoboken waterfront - to be directed by Elia Kazan and written by Arthur Miller. There came the day when Cohn called the artists into his office to meet Roy. They discovered that Brewer had already read their work in progress.
As a waterfront expert, Miller had developed the idea that organized crime was behind the unions. Brewer was disappointed at this scurrilous tactic. After all, he said, everyone knew - didn't they? - that the real problem there was the Communist influence. So he had suggestions - scenes and dialogue - that the boys might appreciate, just to give the picture a chance of being approved. Miller left Hollywood and went back east.
Years later, Kazan made a waterfront movie - On the Waterfront - which makes it clear that it's the mob running the show. But Kazan had gone to HUAC in 1952 and named names, at a time when you might easily bump into Roy if you went to the HUAC offices.
People who knew Brewer said he was sincere and deeply afraid of Communism. Others said he was a political innocent in a position of great power. As much as anyone, he created the cold climate of those days and set the example - still there for nervous souls - that the U.S. is not the country in which you want to go against the grain.