Outside of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul were collectively considered union strongholds, and as the center for the left-wing Farmer-Labor party, this seemed like a fair assumption.1 But Charles Rumford Walker offers a more nuanced description of its labor movement: “The businessmen of Minneapolis had relentlessly battered organized labor in Minneapolis for more than thirty years through the antiunion ,” a group of business owners aiming for “open shop” policies city-wide. On the other hand, “St. Paul was known as a union stronghold; closed-shop contracts were the norm; and its mayor, a founder of the Farmer-Labor party, proudly carried a union card.”2

At the end of August every year, many cities’ movie theater labor contracts expired. Most expired annually, although longer agreements were made on occasion. The Film Daily called it the “annual labor row,” noting the preceding year’s unrest in Chicago, Washington, San Francisco and several other cities, and citing Kansas City, and Washington, and the Twin Cities as the year’s most likely hot zones.3 In both cities, the projectionists and stagehands were represented by the , while the musicians were part of the .

The Monthly Labor Review would list twelve disputes involving motion-picture and theatrical workers starting in September 1927. At Chicago’s Belmont Theater, projectionists objected to the new owners of the Orpheum circuit wanting to halve the number of operators at the theater; the previous employers had four men, while the new owners wanted only two. When the projectionists’ union ordered a walkout on August 29th, the Chicago Exhibitors’ Association responded with a shutdown of all movie and vaudeville theaters that evening. The dispute was settled on September 3rd, with the settlement resulting in “a victory for the machine operators and a partial victory for the musicians and stage hands,” as well as over one million dollars in lost ticket sales. The theater owners would be forced to pay $180,000 in lost wages because of the lockout.4

The trouble brewing in the Twin Cities was due to the newly minted Theatre Owners of the Northwest, which combined the Motion Picture Owners of the Northwest and the Twin City Theatre Managers’ Association, bringing representation of all Twin Cities theaters under one rubric—including F&R’s, the Pantages, and the three Orpheum theaters.5 In June, shortly after Paramount’s salary slash proposal, the theater owners’ organization asked “employes to bear a share of the decreased grosses at the various houses,” calling it “imperative that the musicians revert to the 1925 scale, a reduction of about five per cent. A similar reduction is asked of stage hands, while operators are asked to take a ten per cent and all crafts requested to make a nine month contract instead of the one and two-year agreements heretofore demanded.”6 They explained “the prevailing poor business conditions made the move necessary to the welfare of the theatre owners.”7 Similar demands for wage cuts were made to musicians, operators, and stagehands in St. Louis and Denver. In Seattle, the unions demanded wage increases and the retention of a minimum labor rule, which bases the number of employees on a theater’s seating capacity.8

As the Chicago strike entered its second day, other labor disputes seemed to be emboldened by the situation in Chicago: disputes in Los Angeles, New Jersey, San Francisco, Washington, and Atlanta were linked to the looming “national labor crisis.” The situation in the Twin Cities was very different, however. The operators’ union in Saint Paul claimed to have already settled negotiations agreeably, with a slight raise for some workers. The St. Paul musicians’ union was at odds over the discharge of the Astor theater’s entire orchestra, but demanded no wage adjustments, only that the orchestra be retained as long as the theater was open. , the Astor’s owners, settled the dispute by announcing they would close the theater indefinitely.9

In Minneapolis, projectionists pushed back, demanding 10–15% raises instead, and after several days of negotiations, the owners caved: union projectionists secured raises ranging from 7–15%, their first wage increase in four years. As before, projectionists would earn a minimum wage of $1.15 and a maximum of $1.45 an hour ($15.62 and $19.69 in 2014 dollars, respectively), plus time and a half for overtime, on six and a half hour shifts. Longer shifts were split between two operators. The Minneapolis musicians’ union settled on “practically the same conditions” as before.10

The relatively quick resolution of the Chicago dispute gave the captains of industry reason to relax. In addition to the projectionists’ dispute in Minneapolis, situations in Houston, Fargo, and Iowa were defused, as well. But the stagehands (also represented by IATSE) and the exhibitors could not reach an agreement. Negotiations broke down, and on Friday, September 17, an agreed-upon seventeen-day extension ran out. Stagehands at thirteen theaters walked off their jobs at midnight, demanding one day off per week with full pay and the right of appeal when men are terminated by a theater, as well as a wage increase for some workers. Three more theaters’ stage workers would soon join them, for a total of 130 stage employees.11 The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, would later intimate that the managers had been “belligerent,” assuming to “run things in its own ‘high and mighty’ manner.”12

, President of the Motion Picture Owners of the Northwest—also known as “Fighting Al” in the trades—explained to the Minneapolis Journal that the stagehands’ strike “will not cause any interruption in theater performances. The strikers, for one thing, are demanding one day off with pay. As a matter of fact that have the right of a day off each week now, but not with pay. They are also demanding that the right of discharge be placed in their hands and, in addition, they want to cut the number of performances per week down in theaters which are now operating on a schedule of 21 performances a week.” 13

C. C. Crickman of the stagehands’ union threatened, “We will fight for this day off, if it costs a million dollars. We are determined to obtain it.”14 The Minnesota Labor Review, the official publication of the Central Labor Union of Minneapolis and Hennepin County (affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the Minnesota Federation of Labor), ran a statement from the Minneapolis stagehands’ union detailing their working conditions:

The controversy existing at present between the stage employees of this city and St. Paul, and the managerial association of both cities involves the question of one day’s rest in seven. The stage employees are entering upon the fourth day of their strike in protest against the seven-day week. They wish to submit to the public the true conditions which exist at the present time.

In some of the theaters they are compelled to work from 13 to 14 hours on Sunday, with scarcely sufficient time to get out for meals. They are subject to very late hours on Saturday night, owing to the fact that the majority of the shows close their engagement at that time and must be prepared to leave for the next engagement. They are also subject to all-night work, such as putting on “tank acts” and various other acts of that type. The department heads of each theatre are subject to call every morning of the week at the call of the manager, for the upkeep of their respective departments. In theatres such as the State theatre of this city, and the Capitol theatre in St. Paul, stage employees are compelled to work until 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning, and very often later, and are compelled to report the same morning at the theatre at 10 o’clock. Although the men receive extra compensation for such work, nevertheless it works hardship upon them and denies them the society of their families, which members of other crafts enjoy. In stock theatres, such as the Shubert and Palace of this city, and the President and Lyceum of St. Paul, stage employees are required, in addition to working the current attraction, to build and prepare the next week’s show. In these houses the request was made for additional help, but the request was withdrawn in deference to one day’s rest in seven. Also the demand for a guarantee for 30 weeks at the Metropolitan theatres in both cities, was withdrawn.15

On September 19th, Steffes sent out a letter to nearby towns to solicit strikebreakers to replace the stagehands—as well as collect names of potential replacements for projectionists and musicians, who were not yet on strike. He concluded:

Remember we are keeping the theatres open in Minneapolis and St, Paul and need all the assistance we can get if we are to continue doing this. Get this information to us at once. Remember the help must, of course be Non-union. Yours very truly NORTHWEST THEATRE OWNERS ASSOCIATION W.A. Steffes As President
From “Imported Strikebreakers Take Jobs of Minneapolis–St. Paul Taxpayers,” Minneapolis Labor Review, September 27, 1927. Source: Labor Review Archive Project

With strikebreakers arriving to fill the stagehands’ posts, projectionists walked out on the evening of September 20th, extending the strike to all but a handful of theaters16 in the Twin Cities and leaving other employees or additional strikebreakers to work the projectors. (Those theaters, like most smaller neighborhood theaters, did not employ any stagehands. Their owners refused to participate in the lockout, choosing to retain their union projectionists.) By extending the strike to all theaters, a sympathy strike by the projectionists gave the stagehands more leverage and served as a sign of solidarity. George LaVictoire of the operators’ union explained: “We walked out on orders from union headquarters in New York City. The stagehands’ union appealed to the International operators union to order the sympathetic strike. We will stay out until the dispute is settled. We have at no time refused to meet the theater owners to try to find a solution of the difficulty.”17

P. Ringius, secretary of the Musicians union said that “it is virtually certain that the musicians will walk out”; they were simply waiting for orders. The Bill Posters’ and Scenic Painters’ unions were expected to get involved if strikebreakers were brought in. Actors’ Equity, which represented stage performers at legitimate, vaudeville and stock theaters gave assurances that they would not join.18 No pickets would be posted in front of St. Paul theaters at first, because of an agreement between the union and the theater owners; in Minneapolis, this was not the case, however, pickets and banners were raised at all theaters once the projectionists struck, and ads run announcing that the theaters are unfair to labor. At some theaters, movie posters were covered by union signs. The Union Advocate confidently declared, “No doubt this will cause the average patron to give up his regular theater amusement for the time being.”19

The Minnesota Union Advocate noted:

This is the first time the theater employees of any branch have had difficulties with the managers, and some of the members of the unions suspect the present trouble was sought by some of the new leaders in the local theater field. It is pointed out that recently the Northwest Theater Managers formed an association with W. A. Steffes as president and other comparatively new men as dominating forces. Young Harold Finkelstein, son of the senior Finkelstein, has been taking a very active part in the affairs and it is believed that these are in some measure responsible for the failure to reach an amicable settlement.20

The secretary of the Stage Employees’ Local No. 20 also claimed to be puzzled by the break, suggesting that the “breach has been forced by anti-labor counsel. There have been preparations going on for some time by the theater managers to meet an expected break and this confirms the suspicion that the trouble was invited.” The Union Advocate would complain that the daily papers covered the strike “only in a very incomplete way. It confirms the charge that the break was planned and preparations were made to meet the exigency in some measure.”21

Then, the theaters which had previous retained their union projectionists locked them out, too. The about-face may be explained by this detail from the Labor Review:

The small theatre owner is helpless in this controversy, an official of the Motion Picture Operators’ union explained Tuesday. The theatre managers’ association is controlled by votes on the basis of one vote for each theatre. Under this plan the Finkelstein & Ruben interests, through their Twin City holdings can go into managers’ meetings and cast at least 23 votes.22

The musicians’ union had announced on Wednesday, September 21 that they would join the strike in two weeks’ time, but when theater owners locked out projectionists at the last few theaters, they ignored that clause of their contract and moved their strike up to Saturday (the 24th) at midnight. Two hundred musicians in Minneapolis and one hundred musicians in Saint Paul would join the pickets. For now, the Twin Cities exhibition industry was an open shop.23

Steffes allowed that “a few of the smaller theaters may have been slightly affected by the strike, but we are providing the theaters with operators just as rapidly as we can get in touch with them. The theaters are open and will remain open.”24 Steffes elaborated elsewhere, “We have an obligation to the people of St. Paul to keep the shows running, and we are going to fulfill it at all costs.”25 The Theater Owners of the Northwest ran ads in the daily papers presenting what the St. Paul Pioneer Press called “the owners’ side of the controversy.”26 Shortly after, the Union Advocate would run a rebuttal that strikers printed, which insisted that one day’s rest in seven was the only issue, arguing that “Stage Employees left their positions only after The Northwest Theater Owners’ association absolutely refused to consider their vital request”; that projectionists walked out in accordance with their newly-signed contracts; that the existing (expired) contracts between stage hands expressly stated that pay was always computer based on six days’ pay; that the “right to say who shall work at each theater” was an “Absolute Misstatement”; that the stagehands union only ask managers to “show cause for dismissal”; that the thirty weeks’ guarantee had been withdrawn during negotiations; and that the segregation of all departments was a “Deliberate Falsehood.”27 The Union Advocate would suggest that the “misrepresentations” in the ads running in the daily papers suggested that Citizens Alliance was involved. If Citizens Alliance wasn’t involved, they were at least paying attention.28