Disney animators' strike

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The Disney animators' strike was a labor strike by the animators of Walt Disney Productions. The strike began on May 29, 1941, and lasted roughly five weeks. It resulted in many departures and had a permanent psychological impact on the studio and its founder, Walt Disney.

History[edit]

The economic turmoil of the early 1930s led to the subsequent rise of labor unions in the U.S. Among these was the Screen Cartoonist's Guild, which formed in 1938 to resolve the strike at Fleischer Studios. By 1941, its president, Herbert Sorrell, had secured contracts with every major cartoon studio except Disney and Leon Schlesinger Productions. Schlesinger gave in to the union's requests to sign a contract after his own employees went on strike, but upon signing reportedly asked, "What about Disney?".[1]

Disney's animators had the best pay and working conditions in the industry, but were discontent.[2] Originally, 20 percent of the profits from short cartoons went toward employee bonuses, but Disney eventually suspended this practice.[3] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 was a financial success, allowing Disney to construct a new, larger studio in Burbank, California.[4] At the Burbank studio, a rigid hierarchy system was enforced where employee benefits such as access to the restaurant, gymnasium, and steam room were limited to the studio's head writers and animators, who also received larger and more comfortable offices. Individual departments were segregated into buildings and heavily policed by administrators.

The box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia forced Disney to make layoffs, although Disney rarely involved himself in the hiring and firing process with those who were not atop the pay chain. The studio's pay structure was very disorganized, with some high-ranking animators earning as much as $300 a week while others made as little as $12. Many employees, including Art Babbitt, grew dissatisfied and joined the Cartoonist's Guild. Babbitt was one of Disney's best-paid animators, though he was sympathetic to low-ranking employees and openly disliked Disney.[4] Disney saw no problem with the structure, believing it was his studio to run and that his employees should be grateful to him for providing the new studio space.[4]

Sorrell approached Disney and demanded he unionize his studio, [1] but Disney refused. In February 1941, Disney gathered all 1,200 employees in his auditorium for a 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 a 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."[4]

The assembly was poorly received, and more employees joined the Cartoonist's Guild. Tensions between Disney and Babbitt reached a peak when Disney began to see Babbitt as having personally betrayed him by becoming a union leader.[4] Disney fired Babbitt, and more than 200 members of the studio staff went on strike the next day on May 29, during the production of Dumbo. Other studios' animators, such as those from Warner Bros. Cartoons, offered their support during the strike. Disney retaliated by depicting some of the striking employees in caricature in Dumbo as antagonistic circus clowns, and on one occasion even attacked a picketing Babbitt.[5]

The strike was resolved when the National Labor Relations Board asked Disney to sign a union contract and he agreed. Disney had embarked on a goodwill tour of Latin America to produce Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros some time previously, allowing tensions to cool in his absence.

Aftermath and notable departures[edit]

The strike left the studio with only 694 employees.[6] In addition to Babbit, the studio lost Bill Tytla, Walt Kelly, Virgil Partch, Volus Jones, Phil Duncan, Claude Smith, Bernie Wolf, Joey Lockwood, Alfred Abranz, William Hurtz, T. Hee, Howard Swift, and Frank Fullmer. David Hilberman and John Hubley left to form United Productions of America. Kenneth Muse, Ray Patterson, Preston Blair, Ed Love, Walter Clinton, and Grant Simmons left for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Frank Tashlin returned to Schlesinger, and was joined by Bill Meléndez, Emery Hawkins, Basil Davidovich, Maurice Noble, Cornett Wood, Ted Bonnicksen, and Jack Bradbury.

In the years following World War II, Jones, Duncan, Schaffer, Hawkins, Davidovich, and Bradbury returned to the studio. Disney was forced to rehire Babbitt after he brought an unfair labor practices suit against the studio, though Babbitt eventually left for good.

Disney never forgave the participants and subsequently treated union members with contempt,[5] arguing in a letter that the strike "cleaned house at our studio" and got rid of "the chip-on-the-shoulder boys and the world-owes-me-a-living lads".[7] Testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee, Disney alleged that communism had played a major role in the strike, and many of the participants were blacklisted.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Isbouts, Jean-Pierre (Director) (2001). Walt: The Man Behind the Myth (Television documentary film). ABC/Walt Disney Home Video. 
  2. ^ Thomas, Bob (1994). WALT DISNEY: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL. Disney Editions. ISBN 0-7868-6027-8. 
  3. ^ Barrier, Michael, Hollywood Cartoons (1999), Oxford University Press, UK
  4. ^ a b c d e Grimberg, Sharon (Producer) (2015). American Experience, Walt Disney- Part One (Television documentary film). PBS. 
  5. ^ a b c Lowry, Sam (Nov 1, 2006). "The Disney cartoonists strike, 1941". libcom.org. libcom.org. Retrieved June 23, 2018. 
  6. ^ SEP 16 Disney History
  7. ^ Garchik, Leah (22 February 2015). "Beauty only skin deep, so women are considering their history". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 31 July 2016. 
  • 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

External links[edit]