1919 Actors’ Equity Association strike

The 1919 Actors’ Equity Association (AEA or “Equity”) strike officially spanned from August 7, 1919 to September 6, 1919. The AEA had, only a few weeks prior, become affiliated with the AFL and called the strike against the Producing Managers’ Association on August 7. Before the strike, many actors were required to give hundreds of hours of free rehearsal time, pay for their own travel and costume expenses, and could be fired immediately for not playing their roles to their managers’ satisfaction. Between August 7 and September 6, hundreds of actors walked out of theaters predominantly in New York City and Chicago. As the strike gained support, other laborers in the industry walked out with them, including musicians and stagehands. During negotiations on September 6, 1919, the managers gave the actors all of their demands after losing millions of dollars.
The 1919 Equity strike was especially significant because it helped to reshape the definition of labor. Before the strike, legitimate actors had not attempted to strike due to the idea that they were not in the same class as industrial workers. The strike served to broaden the idea of what it means to be a laborer as well as the notion of which industries should organize.

In the late 19th century, the theater industry underwent significant changes that helped to create an increasingly poor work environment for actors. One of the most important changes was the formation of the Theatrical Syndicate, or the Klaw-Erlinger Syndicate, which was created in 1896 by several successful theater owners and booking managers including Marc Klaw and A. L. Erlinger. These men gained control over the majority of theaters in America by applying big business methods to the theater industry, creating a booking monopoly.
Shortly after the formation of the Theatrical Syndicate, the Shubert brothers started their own monopolistic venture, gaining control over much of the industry. By the 1919 Equity Strike, powerful managers controlled the booking of virtually every theater in the country. It was in this world of managerial combining that the strike of 1919 would occur.
By the turn of the century, the average actor or actress was consistently taken advantage of by his or her managers. In addition to often paying for their own stage costumes and travel, actors were forced to agree to as many hours of free rehearsal time as their managers desired. They spent weeks, even months, rehearsing performances without any sort of compensation. Furthermore, company performance routes were subject to change literally overnight – sometimes evening performances that had low ticket sales would be cancelled, and the actors would not be paid for the cancelled show. Managers would make up for these cancelled shows by traveling during the night to the next destination and performing an additional matinee there. Even though actors lost the pay from the cancelled show the previous evening, they would not be compensated for doing the additional matinee. Finally, another industry-wide grievance regarded the “satisfaction clause,” which was commonly referred to as the “joker clause.” This clause was found in most contracts between actors and managers and stated that the manager could fire the actor if the actor did not play his or her part to the manager’s satisfaction. This gave managers the right to fire players for simply not …could have their salaries cut without warning for any reason.
To combat these grievances, 112 actors formed the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA or “Equity”) in New York City in May 1913. They elected Francis Wilson president of the association. It was clear to them that the current organizations for players, like the White Rats and the Actors’ Society, did not sufficiently protect their interests and a new organization was needed. By the end of its first year, Equity bragged a membership of over 1500 actors, many of them quite well-known. In 1914, the organization began to work to develop a standard contract to present to the United Managers Protective Association (UMPA), the managers’ combination that controlled the majority of the industry. This contract included provisions on how many free rehearsals managers could require of players. It also demanded extra pay for more than eight performances in a week, at least a two-week notice of dismissal, and that the managers cover travel and costuming expenses. For three years, the managers ignored their demands, leading many to question whether or not affiliation with the American Federation of Labor was necessary for success.
There was much debate in Equity over applying for an AFL charter. This was because most actors did not consider themselves “laborers”. They were artists, and many believed it would ruin the dignity of their trade to resort to the lowly, working-class technique of organizing. However, with the managers refusing to acknowledge Equity’s demands, it became clear that a charter and national support was necessary. On May 29, 1916, 518 out of 519 Equity representatives voted to apply to join the AFL at their annual meeting.
The AFL refused to offer Equity an independent charter because all performers were already represented in the AFL by the White Rats, an organization formed by vaudeville performers. They did however offer Equity a charter as a branch of the international White Rats union, but Equity declined, requesting that the White Rats amend their charter so that they could represent vaudeville performers while Equity represented “legitimate” actors. The White Rats refused.
While Equity’s first attempt to join the AFL was not initially successful, it did seem to get the attention of the managers. On October 2, 1917, the UMPA voted to sign a standard contract that would be valid for one year and was to be used by all companies under their control. The contract included the majority of the Equity’s demands, and for a time it looked as though the organization had won, without the help of the AFL.
The victory was short-lived. The majority of managers consistently violated the contract they had signed and refused to acknowledge AEA as a legitimate organization. In 1919, UMPA dissolved and formed the Producing Managers’ Association (PMA), which also sought to destroy Equity’s success by attempting to change the UMPA-AEA standard contract or by simply ignoring aspects of it. Many Equity actors found themselves with just as little power as they had had before organizing, forced to deal independently with managers who may or may not choose to recognize the standard contract or the AEA as a representative of the actor.
A resolution between the White Rats and the AEA came at just the right time for the actors. On July 18, 1919, both organizations came to an agreement to form a new umbrella organization for performing arts, the Associated Actors and Artists of America (the 4A’s). The White Rats gave up its international charter, and the 4A’s took its place in the AFL. Therefore, when both unions received charters as branches of the 4A’s, they were officially AFL-affiliated.
Affiliation with such an influential labor organization gave Equity power and support it did not previously have. The AEA was the first organization of its kind, and the public noticed. In fact, the next day the New York Times devoted an entire article to the new union, reporting proudly that the “unionization of the actor became an established fact.”
On July 30, 1919, the New York Times reported that, “active warfare between the Actors’ Equity Association and theatrical managers was begun yesterday afternoon when an attempt was made to call out a number of the members of the ‘Chu Chin Chow’ company, now in rehearsal at the Century Theater.” The article goes on to discuss how both the managers and the actors believed they had been victorious. However, it seems the victory was on the side of the managers – even though Equity had demanded a walk-out of all its members because the manager refused to acknowledge an AEA contract, only one member followed through. Though Wilson announced the evening after the “walk-out” that the other members would not be returning to rehearse at the Century Theater the next day, they attended the rehearsal, refusing to give up their jobs. The actors would need to put on a much stronger performance to gain any ground.
On August 7, 1919, the Actors’ Equity Association officially declared a strike, stating in its resolution, “we will not perform any service for any manager who is a member of the Producing Managers’ Association or who refuses to recognize our association or issue its contract.” That night, twelve famous New York theaters closed, including Shubert Playhouse, Gaiety, Astor, and Forty-Fourth Street. The managers, completely unprepared for the strike, were forced to give an estimate of $25,000 in ticket refunds that night and scramble to find actors to replace the stars that had walked out. By the end of the first fortnight, only five theaters in New York City were still operating.
After the initial outbreak, the PMA met to discuss their plan of action. It released a statement on August 11, which claimed that Equity was the enemy of both the manager and the actor, as it rendered both unable to freely engage in contract labor – both had lost their personal liberty. The managers also filed suits for damages against Equity. In an attempt to scare Equity members, it printed a warning in the New York Times which declared that actors were personally responsible for the revenue lost during the strike because they were violating the UMPA-AEA contract (which managers had consistently violated) by going on strike. The actors however seized this opportunity to point out that the contract actually recognized the Actors’ Equity Association as a party to the contract in Clause 18, which governed arbitration. This meant that, by refusing to acknowledge Equity as a legitimate representative of the actor, the PMA had violated the contract first. Therefore, Equity actors had reason and justification for breaking the contract by striking.
The strike was not contained to New York City. After the strike in New York began, William called on the local Equity organization in Chicago, asking specific actors to walk out on the productions A Prince there Was and Cappy Ricks in order to demonstrate the power Equity had over theaters around the country. On August 12, these actors gave notice to their managers and walked out on the productions. By August 20, all of the theaters in Chicago were closed. The strike spread quickly to other large cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Providence, St. Louis, and Atlantic City; there was particular success in Pittsburgh, where the majority of theaters were closed by the end of the strike.
During the strike, the actors used a number of techniques to reach the people and pressure the managers. Not only did thousands of players walk out, but they also picketed the closed theaters. In New York, hundreds of Equity members could be found outside closed theaters every night waving banners and delivering speeches about the injustices committed by the managers. The strikers consistently spoke to the press and held parades in order to cultivate public support. One of the most famous parades occurred on Wall Street; it consisted of fifteen cars full of well-dressed, leading actresses driven by prominent actors. As the bystanders cheered the actors and actresses on, it was clear that the actors, not the managers, had the support of the people.
In order to raise money for the strike, Equity put on benefit shows. On August 16, there was a parade down Broadway to support the first benefit show on August 18. These plays were shown at the Lexington Theater and were a huge success. The house was full nearly every night, and Equity was able to raise thousands in a very short period of time.
Equity membership soared like never before during the strike; by August 16, Equity reported having 6,000 members. It began the strike with 4,200. However, it wasn’t just actors and actresses that came out in support of the AEA. Five million trade unionists around the country officially supported the strike. The Teamster Union of Chauffeurs, Stable Men and Helpers refused to deliver to managers that opposed the AEA. The International Alliance of Billposters and Billers of the United States and Canada refused to post bills for theaters with anti-Equity managers. On September 2, 1919, the New York Times announced that the “Stagehands Now Run the Strike”, after stagehands and musicians in Boston and New York walked out to support the strike. Their absence forced six Boston theaters to shut their doors.
After receiving overwhelming support from the AFL, public, press, and unions all over the country, Equity declared victory on September 6, 1919. This date marked the day that the PMA signed the AEA’s basic agreement, giving the union everything it had demanded during the strike. All PMA members were required to use AEA contracts. The contract forced managers to finally pay the actors for overtime and extra rehearsals as well as travel and costumes. It also decided the number of shows that would constitute a full week’s work and established an official payday, Saturday. Finally, the PMA agreed to lift all of the blacklists they had created and the lawsuits they had begun during the strike.
One of the most significant impacts of the strike that is consistently discussed by historians is the impact it had on the definition of labor. Before the strike, neither the actors nor the public viewed stage actors as workers, and few thought it even possible for them to successfully organize. However, as the need to organize became clear to Equity, a shift in the way acting and actors were viewed began to occur. The New Republic article “Acting as a Trade” captures this shift, explaining that the managers “gave them [the actors] the short end of every contract,” as the actors, “hugged their romantic pride.” It goes on to explain how the actors would only be successful if they adopted the means of the working man, as they faced the same hardships. The creation of Equity and the successful strike of 1919 served to break the perceived class barrier between the actor and the industrial worker.
Equity’s victory was inspirational primarily because of the difficulty actors and actresses faced when attempting to organize. Actors were constantly on the road, rehearsing and performing shows. Furthermore, there was a huge disparity between members of Equity in regard to status and salary that didn’t exist in other unions. “Given the resources of the theater manager and the deep divisions in the acting community,” explains historian Sean P. Holmes, “the odds in the actor-manager war were…heavily stacked against the AEA” (Holmes 1315). Nevertheless, Equity received all it demanded from the PMA, and in doing so managed to inspire other unions, such as the American Newspaper Guild, to organize and to consult with Equity for strategies and advice. The Equity strike also encouraged other unions within the industry to form. Performers in the fields of film, television and radio were emboldened by the success of the 1919 strike. Finally, the formation of the Chorus Equity Association as a branch of the AEA was founded during the 1919 strike. It was made up of chorus players, who were generally on the receiving end of some of the lowest salaries and worst managerial abuses. Though it had been thought impossible for actors to organize and strike successfully due to both the logistical difficulties they faced and their initial, negative attitudes towards organized labor, they were able to achieve their goals by means of organizing.