Cinema and Media Studies Film Guilds and Unions
Kate Fortmueller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0344


Film guilds and unions engage in collective bargaining on behalf of media workers in the United States and around the world. Historically, the word “guild” was associated with craft and professional training, but in the US film industry it is often interchangeable with “union.” The exception to this rule is the Producers Guild of America (PGA), which is a professional organization that maintains professional standards and provides its members with networking opportunities. In Hollywood, unions also exist alongside craft organizations such as the American Society of Cinematographers, which help to advance the art and establish professional norms, but do not negotiate wages or provide health and retirement benefits. Some film unions (such as those in the United States, Canada, and England) are historically more well established, in contrast to nations where production is not unionized or unionization has only recently begun. Film unions and guilds in the United States, which include the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), SAG-AFTRA (the union that represents screen performers), and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), have been the most well-studied. Since the first Studio Basic Agreement in 1926, unions have contributed to the professional development and well-being of Hollywood workers, but they have historically been marginal institutions within cinema and media scholarship. There has been abundant writing on union activities in journalistic sources and union magazines, all of which are essential reading for scholars of film guilds and unions. Those looking for scholarship on unions and guilds will need to read across disciplines, as the work on film guilds and unions is methodologically diverse and comes from labor historians and political economists of communication, in addition to cinema and media scholars.

General Overviews

Unions and guilds often merit brief mentions in some broader works on film history, but there is a limited and methodologically eclectic array of scholarship that offers overviews of multiple guilds. Bordwell, et al. 1985 and Wasko 2003 both provide an overview of Hollywood as an industry and devote sections to discussing unions and guilds. Ross 1941 and Perry and Perry 1963 both cover histories of multiple film guilds and unions from the early part of the 20th century. Two works on labor relations, Lovell and Carter 1955 and Gray and Seeber 1996, provide an overview of Hollywood unions specifically written for policymakers and an audience interested in understanding labor relations. Horne 2001 offers a look at one of the most violent periods of union unrest, primarily focusing on below-the-line unions, but with attention to the various class and political interests of all Hollywood workers. General overview studies of specific guilds and unions can be found in the sections Professional Film Unions and Guilds in the United States and Professional Film Unions and Guilds Outside of the United States. For general overviews on film and media labor, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Creative Labor in Cinema and Media Industries.”

  • Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristen Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    This thorough text marries industrial and labor histories with analysis of creative techniques and film style. Janet Staiger’s sections weave union histories and struggles into the industrial analysis. Although not focused explicitly on film guilds or unions, this volume is more attentive to union histories than most general film history texts and is essential reading for understanding the industrial foundations to 1960.

  • Gray, Lois S., and Ronald Leroy Seeber, eds. Under the Stars: Essays on Labor Relations in Arts and Entertainment. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1996.

    Gray and Seeber’s collection focuses on how technology influences labor and changes in the media industries. The introduction gives a brief overview of media unions and makes a substantive case as to why media unions should be of interest to policy makers and those interested in labor relations. The two chapters divided into “craft and production” and “talent” focus on the major transformations within these types of film unions.

  • Horne, Gerald. Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds and Trade Unionists. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

    This text focuses on the bloody Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) clash with IATSE in 1945. Policies and practices of other unions are integrated throughout the book as points of comparison to those of the CSU and IATSE. Horne is particularly attentive to the roles of non-media workers in this conflict, specifically the mafia and the Communist Party.

  • Lovell, Hugh, and Tasile Carter. Collective Bargaining in the Motion Picture Industry. Berkeley, CA: Institute for Industrial Relations, 1955.

    Lovell and Carter explain that the primary focus of their study is to understand how Hollywood maintains stability in a rapidly changing professional environment. They detail the organization of the Hollywood unions, their key bargaining interests, and some of the important characteristics of Hollywood labor, such as the role of casual employment as it affects collective bargaining. This overview is written for an audience interested in labor relations and was part of a larger series on collective bargaining.

  • Perry, Louis B., and Richard S. Perry. A History of the Los Angeles Labor Movement, 1911–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

    Perry and Perry situate Hollywood’s unionization within the larger history of union activity in open shop Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century. The discussion of Hollywood unions is limited to a single chapter that covers unionization of craftworkers, actors, extras, directors, and writers. In relation to broader labor struggles, Perry and Perry claim that the successful unionization of Hollywood workers contributed to the prestige of unions in the 1930s.

  • Ross, Murray. Stars and Strikes: Unionization of Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press, 1941.

    DOI: 10.7312/ross92934

    Ross’s study is a foundational text on Hollywood unions. This book-length study covers all of the Hollywood unions, with special attention to stakes for individuals engaged in the unionization process. There is no contemporary equivalent to this book in terms of its breadth.

  • Wasko, Janet. How Hollywood Works. London: SAGE, 2003.

    This text is a political economy analysis of the filmmaking and marketing processes. Wasko discusses film unions in the chapter on production, briefly outlining their histories, membership, and relative power within the industry.

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