West Orange, NJ was the birthplace of the modern motion
picture industry. In the early 1890's Thomas Edison erected
the first motion picture studio, the "Black Mariah",
a simple structure of tar-papered, wood-framed walls and
glass ceilings, which had a moveable roof operated by
a pulley system. The entire edifice was built upon a circular
railroad track, which enabled the building to be revolved
as the sun's light moved. Although Edison himself considered
his Kinetograph, the first motion picture camera, a mere
novelty, he had on his staff a man named Edwin S. Porter,
who was an imaginative and enthusiastic devotee of the
new medium. His first two films, "The Life of an
American Fireman," (1902) and "The Great Train
Robbery", (1903), made in East Orange, were the first
motion pictures to use interweaving plot lines. They were
also the first to demonstrate the techniques of editing,
such as close-ups, dissolves, flashbacks and inserts,
despite being a mere 11 minutes and 13 minutes long respectively.
New Jersey quickly became the movie-making capitol
of the world. Production companies such as Universal,
Champion, Eclair, World Pictures, Fox, Selznick, Goldwyn
and others, themselves in their infancy, built studios
in the Coyetsville section of Fort Lee. Mack Sennett
and his Keystone Kops also began in Fort Lee, before
moving westward. It is estimated that over 1/3 of the
residents of Fort Lee were employed by the various companies
as workers and craftsmen.
In the early Twenties, silent pictures were at their
peak, and by then producers had slowly moved from Fort
Lee to the more accessible Manhattan. With no bridges
or tunnels, the move saved actors and crew members the
three hours it took to reach New Jersey by trolleys
and ferries. Small and large studios were springing
up all over New York City, including Edison's own 21st
At that time, there were no set working rules in the studios.
Conditions and hours varied from job to job. Wages ranged
from $15 a week for workers to $35 a week for "bosses"
for 48 hours of work. It was in the spring of 1922 that
the seed was sown creating the Studio Mechanics Association,
the now legendary "Green Card" organization
that led eventually to Local 52.
On that spring day in 1922, seven weary studio electricians,
who had spent the past three days and nights lugging
and operating "sun-light" arcs on the set
of D.W. Griffith's "One Exciting Night", were
talking shop. A mild-mannered electrician named Charlie
Pfeif finally asked his companions, "Well, isn't
it about time we all got together?"
This was a question being asked in all the studios.
The need to improve conditions was urgent, and the time
for action was right.
Once the drive to organize began, it moved quickly.
The first meeting of studio technicians was held in
the fall of 1922, and about a month later, 175 men were
carrying the Green Cards in their wallets. (The cards
were green because so many of the original members were
Irish.) The movement spread until almost all the working
craftsmen were members of the association. All this
had to be accomplished quietly, and in some studios
secretly, for fear of reprisals.
The leaders of the organization realized that, in order
to be effective and come out into the open, the association
would have to join the official Labor Movement of the
U.S.A.-- then the A. F. of L.
The next step was to obtain a charter from the International
Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the
Union representing the workers of the entertainment
industry. Although there was resistance, the pleas for
a charter were made to the I.A. Convention in Cincinnati
in the spring of 1924 by John Murphy, Ben Mahoney and
The Committee assigned to vote on the proposal, which
was composed of Locals 1, 306, 4 and 59, voted "yea"
and the new organization, Studio Mechanics Local 52,
was born-the first Motion Picture Local in the world.
THE EARLY YEARS
The beginning years were not easy. Slowly, the Local emerged
as the respected provider of film crews in the New York
area while raising wage standards and bringing improvements
in working conditions and working rules. This all happened
during the prosperous days of silent pictures. Although
many production companies had made the trek westward earlier
in the century, to a small enclave known as Los Angeles,
there came a terrible slump from 1926 to 1928 when all
the business went West. It was a drought- absolutely no
work. Local 52 lost approximately 60% of its membership
of about 700, but there remained a steadfast group of
men who held on, eking out a living in any way they could,
holding out for the film business to return. Some of the
members who remained active in Local 52 were able to obtain
work only one day a week-and those were the lucky ones.
Then, miraculously, sound was introduced, and the industry
here revived. Local 52 recognized the importance of
this innovation and organized the soundmen, catapulting
New York into a position of importance. From 1928 to
1932, New York was a boom town, with artists such as
the Marx Brothers, Walter Huston and Maurice Chevalier
walking the stages of what we now fondly call "The
Big House"- then Paramount Studios, now Kaufman-Astoria
However, by 1932, Hollywood had completed its conversion
to sound. For the next ten years, New York's film industry
was in bleak condition. Although there were occasional
films shot here during those years, such as "The
Scoundrel," "The Emperor Jones," "One
Third of a Nation," and "The March Times,"
on the whole, these were hard and bitter days for the
men of Local 52.
At the advent of World War II, the Army Signal Corps
took over the "Big House" and the Office of
War Information (OWI) began operating there. Each of
them put many Local 52 men to work making training films
for our Armed Forces. At the same time, pictures like
"The House on 92nd Street" and "The Window"
improved things a bit, but not enough to indicate that
New York's film business would ever equal the glory
days of the Silent Era. Then, after the war, along came
the "Magic Box"-Television.
THE MIDDLE YEARS
The renaissance of the film industry in New York occurred
around 1950 with the advent of Television. The impact
of TV on New York was like a massive shot of adrenaline.
TV became a major medium of advertising, and with New
York's Madison Avenue the advertising capitol of the world,
our city became the prime source of TV commercials. They,
in turn, became the main reason for New York's upsurge
in film production and employment.
Major production houses, such as Filmways and M.P.O.,
(both unfortunately now defunct) were formed to handle
the extraordinary TV commercial business, and approximately
50 TV commercial companies opened their doors.
Around this period, New York also produced the first
successful television film series, "Man Against
Crime." This was followed by other filmed shows,
among them the classic Phil Silvers "Sergeant Bilko"
series, "Car 54," "Naked City,"
and the 1962 Emmy-winning "The Defenders."
Adding to New York's resurgence at this time was the
Academy-Award winning film "On the Waterfront."
(1950). This film helped to turn the spotlight on New
York's vast pool of theatrical talent, as well as its
technical capabilities and its fine Local 52 craftsmen,
most of whom were now the sons of the original members,
having entered the Local after World War II. Each year
that passed now saw new theatrical releases being filmed
in New York, with Local 52 proving its mettle in manning
The resurgence of theatrical films based in New York
was due to a number of factors, the largest of which
was the breakdown of the "studio system."
Producers and audiences had matured, and were looking
for films that had real content. The films the public
wanted to see were more reality-based, requiring a type
of actor unlike the glamour stars of the past. The main
source of the new talent being called for in these films
was the Broadway stage. "The Miracle Worker,"
"Requiem for a Heavyweight," and "Long
Day's Journey into Night" are just a few examples
of the "New York Cinema" of that time.
The A.D.T.F.C. and NABET LOCAL 15
A complicating factor which arose after World War II
was the presence of a dual Union-the Association of
Documentary Technicians and Film Cameramen, which was
affiliated with the CIO, and which later came under
the umbrella of NABET (the National Association of Broadcast
Engineers and Technicians.) The existence of the two
competing groups hampered the organization of non-union
shops and slowed the progress of living standards for
Aware that this situation was against the best interests
of all motion picture workers, International President
Richard F. Walsh recommended in 1954 that Local 52 absorb
the A.D.T.F.C. and end the situation of competing Unions.
On September 1st, 1954, Local 52 voted to accept the
A.D.T.F.C. members, bringing in about 75 new men- and
our first woman, Donna Johnke.
However, no written agreement was ever made between
NABET and the IATSE that prevented NABET from organizing
in the film industry, and the NABET Local 15 charter
was left dormant. By the early 1960's, a large nucleus
of non-Union workers had formed as a result of the demand
for low-budget production. On September 19, 1965, these
non-Union workers got the protection they sought by
reactivating the old ADTFC charter, forming the Local
known as Local 15 Association of Film Craftsmen NABET,
with some 750 formerly non-Union workers joining.
The strength and numbers of NABET Local 15 grew, building
until by the early Seventies dual Unionism had once
again become an untenable problem for all of New York's
film workers. Producers of TV commercials, Movies of
the Week, and even feature films were playing off one
Union against the other, trying to manipulate Business
Agents on both sides of the fence, looking for lower
rates and lesser terms and conditions.
Finally, in 1990, the situation was resolved. NABET
15's charter was dissolved. The members had a choice
of joining the IATSE; Local 3, IBEW; or trying to remain
independent. Wisely, they chose to become members of
the International Alliance.
THE CHANGING FACE OF LOCAL 52
Even before the absorption of NABET Local 15 in 1990,
Local 52 had begun its expansion. While our original jurisdiction
was the five boroughs of New York, in 1964 we expanded
to include all of Long Island. In 1994, we were given
control over all of New York and New Jersey; in 1995 we
took in Delaware and Pennsylvania (with the exception
of the 50 mile radius around Pittsburg;) and in 1998,
we expanded to include Connecticut.
In 1965, we had approximately 625 members; by the beginning
of 1990, this number had doubled to 1250, and after
the merger with NABET, in October 1990, we grew to
2000 strong. The current membership hovers around
The demographics of Local 52 have changed dramatically
since the early 1970's. Additionally, the technologies
employed in our industry have become more and more sophisticated,
requiring more training to educate our members in the
new approaches to filmmaking. Local 52 is addressing
this issue with our new Education and Safety Trust Fund,
an Erisa trust that was established in July 1998. The
employer trustee for this fund is Jim Finnerty, a former
Local 52 Grip who is now a successful producer. Local
52's trustee is Jim Gartland. The fund was started with
seed money from Local 52 and is now funded by employer
contributions. This fund is used to provide continuing
education to our members through seminars and safety
Local 52 has come a long way since the brave men of
the Twenties forged a Union for us all. On any set now,
you will find men and women, former NABET members, third-generation
members, film-school graduates and organized members
We continue to be grateful to those who have come before
us, the original Green Card men who made all of this
possible. In the exciting climate of our new millennium,
we take the very best that has preceded us, the technology
of today and tomorrow, and look forward to a vibrant,
growing industry in this, the entertainment capitol
of the world.