Disney animators' strike
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The Disney animators' strike was a labor strike by the animators of Walt Disney Studios in 1941.
The economic turmoil of the early 1930s led to a rise of labor unions in the US, including the Screen Actors Guild in the motion picture industry, which was formed in 1933. Later that decade, the animators of Fleischer Studios went on strike in 1937 when Max Fleischer fired 15 employees, all of whom were a part of the American Art-Union. The Fleischer strike was eventually resolved by the formation of the Screen Cartoonist's Guild in 1938. The leader of the Guild was Herbert Sorrell. Sorrell secured contracts with Terrytoons, Walter Lantz Productions, Screen Gems, George Pal, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Leon Schlesinger Productions, producer of the popular Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros., and Leon Schlesinger himself attempted a lockout, but gave in to the union after the employees went on strike. Upon signing the union contract Schlesinger asked, "What about Disney?".
Disney artists were the best paid and worked under the best conditions in the industry—but they were discontented. In the early days of the studio, Walt Disney gave 20 percent of the profits from the short cartoons to his employees as bonuses. However, in 1936 Disney suspended this practice. After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Disney started construction on a new spacious studio in Burbank, California. He began moving his staff there from his old studio on Hyperion Avenue in December 1939. At the new Burbank studio a rigid hierarchy system was in place with departments in segregated buildings that were more heavily policed by Disney administrators. Employee benefits such as access to the gymnasium, steam room, and restaurant, as well as spacious and luxurious offices, were reserved for top writers and animators.
In 1940, due to the box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia, Disney was forced to make lay-offs, although Walt rarely involved himself in the actual hiring and firing of individual employees unless at the top of the pay chain. By this time the pay structure at the Disney studio had become very disorganized with some high ranking animators earning as much as $200 to $300 a week while low ranking employees made as little as $12 a week. Many of the employees started to grumble and joined the Screen Cartoonists Guild, including Art Babbitt, one of Disney's highest paid animators, who was sympathetic to low ranking employees and openly disliked Walt. Walt was oblivious to his employees complaints; he viewed them as a family and saw no problem in high ranking animators getting privileges and low ranking employees receiving none as he thought they should be grateful to him for providing the new studio space.
As the biggest and most successful animation studio, Disney was an obvious target for the Screen Cartoonists' Guild. Sorrell approached Walt and aggressively demanded that he become a union shop. Disney refused as he felt he had the right to run his own studio as he saw fit.
In February 1941, Disney decided to make his case to men and women working for him, and gathered all 1,200 employees in his auditorium and gave the following speech:
In the 20 years I've spent in this business I've weathered many storms. It's been far from easy sailing. It required a great deal of work, struggle, determination, competence, faith, and above all unselfishness. Some people think we have class distinction in the place. They wonder why some people get better seats in the theatre than others. They wonder why some men get spaces in the parking lot and others don't. I have always felt, and always will feel that the men that contribute most to the organization should, out of respect alone, enjoy some privileges. My first recommendation to the lot of you is this; put your own house in order, you can't accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything. If you're not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.
Much of the staff left the theatre infuriated and recruited even more employees to join the Screen Cartoonist's Guild. Meanwhile, tensions between Disney and Art Babbit were reaching a peak when Babbit became one of the union leaders which Walt saw as a personal betrayal. "I don't care if you keep your god-damn nose glued to the board all day, or how much work you turn out..." he told Babbit in the hallway one day, "if you don't stop organizing my employees, I'm going to throw you right the hell out of the front gate."
In May 1941, Disney sent a letter of termination to Babbit citing his cause "union activities." This was the final spark that started the strike. The next day on May 29, 1941, more than 200 members of the studio staff had walked out on strike.
During the strike, animators from other studios offered support for the strikers. Animators from Warner Bros., including Chuck Jones, volunteered their cars to form a motorcade around the Disney studio.
The strike lasted five weeks. Toward the end, Disney accepted a suggestion by Nelson Rockefeller, then head of the Latin American Affairs office in the State department, that he make a tour of Latin America as a goodwill ambassador. His removal from the scene enabled passions to cool, and in his absence the strike was settled with the help of a federal mediator, who found in the Guild's favor on every issue. The Disney studio signed a contract and has been a union shop ever since.
Aftermath and notable departures
Following the strike, irreparable damage to the psychology and mood of the studio had, nevertheless, been done. Before the strike, the number of employees had been about 1200, but after it ended, it was reduced to 694. Schickel quotes a letter in which Disney said that "it cleaned house at our studio" and got rid of "the chip-on-the-shoulder boys and the world-owes-me-a-living lads".
In addition to Babbitt, among the notable animators that left following the strike were Bill Tytla, Walt Kelly and Virgil Partch. The departures also included David Hilberman and John Hubley, who all went on to form a new animation studio known as United Productions of America, or UPA. Leaving for the MGM studio were Kenneth Muse, Ray Patterson (he briefly worked at Screen Gems for a year under Tashlin's supervision before going to MGM), Preston Blair, Ed Love, Walter Clinton, and Grant Simmons. Animators who would resurface at Leon Schlesinger Productions (then under contract to produce cartoons for Warner Brothers) included Bill Meléndez, Frank Tashlin (who had worked at Schlesinger before moving to Disney), Emery Hawkins, Basil Davidovich, Maurice Noble, Cornett Wood, Ted Bonnicksen, and Jack Bradbury (Davidovich and Bradbury would return many years later).
Other notable animators to leave following the strike included Volus Jones, Claude Smith, Bernie Wolf, Joey Lockwood, Alfred Abranz, William Hurtz, T. Hee, Howard Swift, and Frank Fullmer. An unfair labor practices suit brought by Babbitt (by this point drafted into the Armed Forces) worked its way through the courts, and Disney was forced to rehire him after World War II. But Disney, who had blamed Babbitt for instigating the strike, never forgave him for what he had done. Babbitt finally left Disney for good and on his own free will in 1947.
Several of the other people who left Disney after the strike returned in the postwar years, including Volus Jones, Phil Duncan, Milt Schaffer and (briefly) Emery Hawkins. Basil Davidovich returned in the 1950s. Jack Bradbury became a frequent artist for the Disney comic books beginning in the 1950s.
The strike also had an impact on Walt Disney. Before the strike he (and the other employees) felt as if they were "one big family", but during and after the strike Walt felt betrayed and he was not sure whether he could trust anyone. Walt eventually recovered for the most part but never quite forgave the people who had been part of the strike.
- Gabler, Beal (2006). Walt Disney:The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. ISBN 978-0-6794-3822-9.
- Isbouts, Jean-Pierre (Director) (2001). Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (Television documentary film). ABC/Walt Disney Home Video.
- Thomas, Bob (1994). WALT DISNEY: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL. Disney Editions. ISBN 0-7868-6027-8.
- Barrier, Michael, Hollywood Cartoons (1999), Oxford University Press, UK
- Grimberg, Sharon (Producer) (2015). American Experience, Walt Disney- Part One (Television documentary film). PBS.
- SEP 16 Disney History
- Sito, Tom. Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. ISBN 0-8131-2407-7
- The Disney strike, on The Animation Guild's website
- Another look back at the 1941 Disney Studio strike; includes contemporary article from Screen Actor magazine