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How to be a working-class killjoy at your friend's Oscar party

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Did you know that the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 1920s was part of a deliberate ploy to undermine unionization in American show business?

It starts with Louis B. Mayer, a California-based studio boss, and the "Mayer" in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His fear that workers in the studio industry would dare to organize and demand fair working conditions culminated in the establishment of the Academy that gives out the Oscars.

The fascinating story has been detailed elsewhere, but our favourite take is the 2014 Vanity Fair piece by David Thompson.  According to Thompson, the MGM studio boss was trying to build a palatial beach house so his family could have somewhere appropriate to spend their summer leisure time. Mayer also wanted to exploit his own in-house studio labour to save time and cut costs for his family project.

In 1926, Mayer's staff design lead drafted plans for a glamourous beach pad. But there was an inconvenience they would have to contend with:

"The studios were about to sign an agreement with the union that looked after studio laborers (soon to be known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). Those guys had secure rates of pay, with overtime. That house was going to cost if studio labour built it….

Until this very practical example, he had never quite appreciated the deal made with these carpenters, painters, electricians, et cetera."

Thompson goes on to explain that Mayer was soon set on a course of employer-side creativity to manage the potential of more workers demanding union protection.

"Mr. Mayer and his pals decided they needed an organization to handle labour problems at the studio without having to get into the union thing, and it would be a public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time. They liked the scheme and wondered what to call this organization. 

It needed a word with class, history, distinction....In a few more days they had fleshed it out: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."

So the next time you’re at an Oscar viewing party with friends, dare to be the unionist killjoy: The "Oscars" -- and possibly other industry associations that give out awards -- are attempts by rich people to disorganize workers.

This article originally appeared on Solidarity MediaIt is reprinted with permission.

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Image: Louis B. Mayer (right) with Jimmy Durante during an award dinner at Mt. Sinai Men's Club in Los Angeles, California in 1948. [Wikimedia Commons]

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