OCTOBER 14, 2021
Is Thomas Jeffrey Hanks a Steely Mogul-Bossman or a Union Loyalist?
Can the Beloved Icon be Both?
HISTORY AND LEGEND
Once upon a time . . . in Hollywood, of all places … there was a feisty, robust labor union. It had a fighting spirit and it took pride in its achievements. It was made up of an unlikely crew of eccentric drifters and dreamers and passionate idealists from all over America — from the comfortable center of American society, and from its very fringes. This labor union was called the Screen Actors Guild. It could have been called the “Screen Actors Union,” but some of the founders believed “Guild” had a classier ring.
Nevertheless, many members of this union had no illusions about class. They knew quite well they weren’t “artists.” They weren’t “artisans” or even “craftsmen.” They were semi-skilled industrial workers. They were day-laborers, most of them, doing mental and physical work in a manufacturing process mostly less dirty and dangerous, but no more glamorous, than an automobile assembly line or a steel mill, or the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley or the docks of nearby San Pedro harbor.
Because they knew what unions are for, and because they had no illusions about “artistry” or middle-class respectability, these screen-entertainment workers succeeded in changing the Screen Actors Guild into a fighting labor organization, much to the displeasure of their powerful mogul-bosses (as well as some of the more financially successful members of “The Guild” itself). And these militant worker-unionists began to win real labor-struggle victories that improved their lives and the lives of the worker-performers who came after them.
It sounds fanciful, but I believe there have been moments when the Screen Actors Guild was a shining “citadel of labor.”
(For the record, the Screen Actors Guild — S.A.G. — no longer exists. In 2012, a confused and demoralized membership voted overwhelmingly to be absorbed into a larger, alien body, along with another, somewhat less admirable, and markedly less robust, performers’ union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — AFTRA. The larger, alien entity was named “SAG-AFTRA.”)
HOW TO BREACH A CITADEL OF LABOR
The Screen Actors Guild was flexing its muscle in a period of militancy. In 1980, the post-War generation of actors had ascended to authority and they were imbued with the spirit of the labor struggles of the 1930s and ’40s. They had already won landmark victories: they had established health and pension funds; employers were compelled to make contributions to those funds; the leadership and and the motivated membership had sacrificed greatly to achieve a huge milestone — royalties, or “residuals,” for previous work whenever television stations broadcast feature films or repeats (“re-runs”) of television programs.
This citadel of labor was strong, maybe impregnable, at least from the outside.
Thomas J. Hanks was an ambitious entrepreneur. He emigrated to Hollywood from Cleveland and tried his luck at the acting game, under the name “Tom Hanks.” His luck was very, very good. And the entrepreneur’s sights were set far above acting stardom.
But just before that incredible run of luck, just as his career was about to take off, he suffered a setback. More about that dark period after we flash-forward to 2021.