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Weavers of Dreams, Unite!Actors' Unionism in Early Twentieth-Century America$
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Sean P. Holmes

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780252037481

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252037481.001.0001

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Protecting the High-Minded Actor and the High-Minded Manager in Equal Part

Protecting the High-Minded Actor and the High-Minded Manager in Equal Part

Occupational Unionism in the American Theater Industry, 1919–1929

(p.87) Chapter Four Protecting the High-Minded Actor and the High-Minded Manager in Equal Part
Weavers of Dreams, Unite!

Sean P. Holmes

University of Illinois Press

This chapter examines the long-term implications of the unionization of the legitimate theater. It begins with an analysis of the debate that took place within the Actors' Equity Association (AEA) in the early 1920s over where in labor's many-mansioned house its members should reside. Equity leaders distanced themselves not only from the radicalism of the left but also from the “pure-and-simple” craft unionism that was the bedrock of the American Federation of Labor, equating it with wage scales that were set without regard for merit and a closed-shop tradition that restricted access to unionized trades. What they embraced as an alternative was a peculiarly theatrical brand of occupational unionism that emphasized the occupational identity of the actor, as opposed to bread-and-butter issues like wages and hours, and tied union power to control over those within the occupation. The chapter then explains how the AEA secured its position as a permanent feature of the theatrical landscape at a time when, in all but a handful of industries, organized labor was in retreat. It locates the explanation in the dynamics of the theatrical economy, arguing that the industry's increasing reliance on outside capital meant the big producers could ill afford interruptions to production and had much to gain from cooperating with a union that had promised to deliver a compliant theatrical workforce. The final section documents the efforts of the AEA to deliver on its founders' pledge that it would “protect the high-minded actor and the high-minded manager in equal part.”

Keywords:   Actors' Equity Association, American Federation of Labor, trade unions, actors' union, unionization, legitimate theater

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