The actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan is remembered by some both for his on-screen presence and his impact on American politics. Too few, however, know of his influence on the politics of Hollywood.
As president of the United States, one of Reagan’s most defining moments was when he fired over 10,000 air traffic controllers who had been on strike and ignored his orders to return to work. But he was not a union-hater. In fact, he was once a Big Labor boss.
By the 1940’s, Reagan had risen to stardom on the silver screen. Like many, World War II put his career on hold as he helped the war effort by making army training videos. Unfortunately, when he returned to acting in 1945 he was unable to reestablish his pre-war popularity.
In the meantime, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was making inroads in the US labor movement. As odd as it may seem today, there was much suspicion regarding Hollywood’s role in fostering communist ideologies—the film industry is a powerful tool for spreading ideas, and it was suspected that the Soviets wanted to take over the industry as a means to spreading communist propaganda. People were very fearful that “the order from Moscow [was to] ruin the motion picture business.”
It was in this environment that Reagan became Vice President of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), an American labor union representing film and television industry workers. In 1946, Reagan’s first year serving as the Guild’s VP, the Conference of Studios Union (CSU) led violent strikes against Warner Brothers Studios. He believed that the CSU, a breakaway labor group representing set decorators, was backed by the Communist Party in Hollywood and San Francisco.
Reagan watched strikers as they bombed cars and threw rocks at security guards and workers who attempted to cross the union’s picket lines. Reagan recalled watching strikers terrorize workers who tried to enter through the studio’s gates: “[the picketers would] open the car door, with the window rolled down, break [their arms]—and then send them on in to try and do their job.”
Reagan was convinced that the strike was a Soviet plot aimed at gaining control over actors and directors of the silver screen. He took matters into his own hands and began meeting with workers and speaking publicly to union members, explaining that their actions did not demonstrate “democratic unionism.” Reagan’s mentor in Hollywood, Roy Brewer, said that he “fought them on and off record.” Reagan persuaded the board to allow SAG members to cross the CSU’s picket lines, essentially weakening the CSU’s powers and causing the union to be dismantled.
Reagan was so successful in his management of the CSU strike that he soon became president of the Guild.
In his first of seven one-year terms as President of SAG, Reagan extended his role as the union’s leader—he used his unique position as a means to exert influence over Hollywood in a way that would fight communism. In 1947, for example, Reagan succeeded in pushing SAG members to vote in favor of a charge forcing the Union’s officers to take a non-communist pledge. That same year, he was questioned by FBI agents regarding communists in Hollywood and shared his suspicions of possible pro-communist propaganda.
Reagan was so respected he was even asked, along with Walt Disney, to testify as a “friendly witness” before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a sub-committee of the House of Representatives responsible for investigating disloyalty or communist ties. During the hearing, though Reagan did not reveal the names of suspects, he explained his ongoing struggle against communist infiltration and the SAG’s harsh stance against communist activities:
I think, within the bounds of our democratic rights and never once stepping over the rights given us by democracy, we have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping those people’s activities curtailed. After all, we must recognize them at present as a political party. On that basis we have exposed their lies when we came across them, we have opposed their propaganda, and I can certainly testify that in the case of the Screen Actors Guild we have been eminently successful in preventing them from, with their usual tactics, trying to run a majority of an organization with a well-organized minority. In opposing those people, the best thing to do is make democracy work.
Although Reagan was born and raised a Democrat, after witnessing the general disorder in Hollywood and the CSU’s violent strike, he began undergoing a shift in ideology. He was displeased with the government’s response to these problems and was disheartened by the Democratic party which was in power—as someone who was directly involved in the fight against communism in America, Reagan was appalled by the government’s lack of interest in this battle on its own soil. In addition, he believed that in addition to trying to contain communism overseas, the government should take a more aggressive stance on the spread of communism in Hollywood.
He later wrote about his political shift in his memoir “An American Life: An Autobiography”:
I guess I was also beginning a political transformation that was born in an off-screen caldron of deceit and subversion and a personal journey of discovery that would leave me with a growing distaste for big government. I didn’t realize it, but I’d started on a path that was going to lead me a long way from Hollywood.
Even though Reagan began to lean more and more towards the Republican party, he continued to fight for what he thought was in the best interest of his union. In 1948, his second year as SAG President, Reagan grew increasingly concerned with the growing popularity of television. Televisions channels began playing episode re-runs, but without further compensating the actors. Reagan felt that actors were being deprived of their income so he fought to secure their residuals and was instrumental in creating the residuals system for TV actors.
Union members were extremely satisfied with Reagan’s efforts and so he was president of the Guild again in the fall of 1959. As more and more movies became telecasted, Reagan grew concerned with the movie actors’ residuals which had not yet been secured. Producers refused to negotiate with Reagan on this matter, so he felt he had no other option but to actually lead a strike. Therefore, in February of 1960, Reagan asked SAG members for permission to lead a strike. He had the union’s support and on March 7 all actors walked off their respective studio sets and movie productions came to a halt.
The major production companies were stunned by Reagan’s unexpected actions and his determination. A few days later, Universal Pictures agreed with the concept of residuals. Eventually, all other studios followed suit and negotiations began.
Reagan was not anti-union. On the contrary, as a union leader he fought for his union members’ rights, led a strike, and sought to fight off ideologies that would put his people at risk and threaten their democratic rights. As President of the United States he defeated international communism and helped liberate millions of people. Decades earlier, as President of the SAG, he protected and liberated his own union.