Disney animators' strike
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. Though it resulted in the studio officially recognizing labor unions, it resulted in many departures and had a permanent psychological impact on the studio and its founder, Walt Disney.
In the 1930s, a rise of labor unions took place in Hollywood in response to the Great Depression and subsequent mistreatment of employees by studios. Among these unions was the Screen Cartoonist's Guild (SCG), which formed in 1938 after the first strike at an animation studio occurred, at Fleischer Studios. By 1941, SCG president Herbert Sorrell had secured contracts with every major cartoon studio except Disney and Leon Schlesinger Productions. Schlesinger gave in to the SCG's requests to sign a contract after his own employees went on strike, but upon signing reportedly asked, "What about Disney?"
Disney's animators had the best pay and working conditions in the industry, but were discontented. Originally, 20% of the profits from short cartoons went toward employee bonuses, but Disney eventually suspended this practice. Disney's 1937 animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a financial success, allowing Disney to construct a new, larger studio in Burbank, California. 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 in 1940 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 SCG. Babbitt was one of Disney's best-paid animators, though he was sympathetic to low-ranking employees and openly disliked Disney. 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.
Sorrell, along with Babbitt and Bill Littlejohn, approached Disney and demanded he unionize his studio, 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."
The assembly was poorly received, and more employees joined the SCG. Tensions between Disney and Babbitt reached a peak when Disney began to see Babbitt as having personally betrayed him by becoming a union leader. Disney fired Babbitt along with 16 other employees who were members of the SCG. The next day on May 29, more than 200 members of the studio staff went on strike, during the production of the 1941 film Dumbo. Other studios' animators, such as those from Schlesinger, 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.
The strike was resolved when the National Labor Relations Board asked Disney to sign a union contract and he agreed. Disney was returning from a goodwill tour of Latin America to produce animated films as part of the Good Neighbor policy, allowing tensions to cool in his absence. Saludos Amigos was released the following year in 1942, while The Three Caballeros was released in 1944.
Aftermath and notable departures
The strike left the studio with only 694 employees. In addition to Babbitt, the studio lost Bill Tytla, Walt Kelly, Tyrus Wong, Virgil Partch, Volus Jones, Phil Duncan, Claude Smith, Bernie Wolf, Joey Lockwood, Alfred Abranz, William Hurtz, T. Hee, Howard Swift, Milt Schaffer, and Frank Fullmer. Stephen Bosustow, 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 the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio. Frank Tashlin returned to Warner Bros. Cartoons, and was joined by Hawley Pratt, Bill Meléndez, Emery Hawkins, Basil Davidovich, Maurice Noble, Cornett Wood, Ted Bonnicksen, and Jack Bradbury.
In the years following World War II, Hee, 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, 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". 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.
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