On May 29, 1941 Walt Disney pulled up to his studio on Buena Vista Blvd, and saw a sight he will never forget. Almost 300 angry protesters were picketing the studio, all of them his cartoonists. Shouting and holding signs, it was a sight that Walt would never forget, and never forgive. But what could have caused this strike? To work at the Disney Studios was the dream of hundreds of artists and animators. To understand this and the events leading up to the most pivotal event in the history of Animation, we have to understand the work environments of the early 20th century and to understand Walt Disney himself.
Working at the Walt Disney studios was a dream come true for many. The atmosphere and camaraderie were like nowhere else. Although Walt was the Boss, he was always accessible to his employees, he had the uncanny ability to squeeze out the best in his workers, and he instilled a sense of commitment, dedication and purpose to all his animators. He demanded perfection and quality and his workers were more than happy to give him that. This was true even in the first studio Walt had formed when he was only 21. The “Laugh-O-Gram Studio,” founded in May of 1922 with a handful of pioneering animators, gave Walt the experience and training he would need for the future. Although the studio only lasted until July of 1923, the animators would pull practical jokes on one another, engage in light horse-play, and there was never any tension or pressure. Walt was younger than some of the workers, and never seemed like the Boss, but they always got the job done. However, money problems plagued Walt, hence the Bankruptcy. This “Folksy” working environment continued into the new studios Walt and Roy built in 1925 at 2719 Hyperion Avenue, hence the name.
It was here that Mickey Mouse was born, and most important, the first full-length feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” It is with the profits from Snow White that Walt built the now headquarters of the Disney Company on 500 South Buena Vista St. in Burbank. It was here that things began to change.
It is important to understand that, for many, working for Walt Disney was a dream, and many revered and idolized the man. But there is a darker aspect to this story. We must remember that Walt was a man, with the same shortcomings and flaws as anyone. As the company grew from a couple of workers in the back of a Real Estate office to a huge company of almost 1200 workers, that “Folksy” atmosphere evaporated. The new studio, Walt personally designed himself was a state-of-the-art studio, designed with everything workers could want, but many thought it was “Too Perfect.” Work was more routinized, more impersonal, it lacked the informality and spirit of the Hyperion studio. Walt was more “insulated” from his workers. In addition, the things that Walt has done over the years festered with many. For one, Walt very rarely granted praise to anyone, and one of the biggest complaints was that even in the feature films, many artists who labored years on the films (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi) were not even mentioned in the credits. In the beginning, the credits at the start of Steamboat Willie would read…”A Walt Disney Cartoon by Ub Iwerks.” But that soon changed, it was Disney’s name on everything, and many resented that. Also, even if you had what you thought was a better way to do something, you knew not to contradict Walt, or risk his ire.
The Disney workers were among the highest paid in the industry at the time, but the salaries were much skewered. A top animator would make as much as $300.00 a week, but an in-betweener and clean-up men made less than $20.00 a week. The way bonuses were distributed was another gripe. Why did one person get one, and another did not, even though they did the same job? The system was so complicated, no one understood it. This caused rifts and jealousies between the staff. There developed two camps…One that idolized Walt and one who did not. Another resentment was that after the completion of Snow White, the cartoonists were promised pay raises and bonuses as the film was expected to be extremely successful. It was on this belief that many put in countless unpaid hours of overtime. It was enormously successful bringing in four times more profit than the next successful film of 1937. Instead of bonuses, there were layoffs and the animators names were not in the credits of the film, just Walt Disney.
Animators also realized that you did not cross or disagree with Walt. This carried over even when Walt purchased the land in Florida for the “Florida Project.” While looking over the vast swamplands and forests, many executives with Walt were thinking…”How can we make a park out of this wilderness”, but would never say that aloud to him. On time an animator approached Walt with the idea of giving awards for the best animation, Walt told him “If there’s going to be any awards made, I’m going to get them.” Walt often expressed resentment at his animators for what he saw as their haughtiness and self-regard, calling them “touch-me-nots” and “holy cows.” One animator once said…”He’s a genius at using someone else’s genius.” Many saw Walt as an “Autocrat” whose word was the only word. Even Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of Walt’s “Nine old Men” and loyal to Walt, would acknowledge a new rebelliousness. They respected Walt’s ideas, but sometimes secretly felt that “My way is better!” They all knew that Walt entertained ideas that comported to his own. Animator Ward Kimball noted that anyone with sense would wait on what Walt would say.
But despite all going on, Walt always believed his workers were loyal to him. If anything they, like him, wanted to advance animation with the same zeal as he did. But he did notice flagging moral and production delays, and on January 30th, 1940 Walt convened a select group of animators in the animation building and spoke for 2 hours and 45 minutes in a pep talk he hoped would bring back unification and informality back to the studio. He tried to get the fun back.
But it was too far gone for that. All this dissent and the feeling of being left out and angry, was a condition ripe for rebellion. For many years, union organizers attempted to unionize animation studios and animation departments of major studios. One of the first was the Fleischer studio in New York. After Fleischer fired 15 workers who joined the union, after a 6 month strike, the union was certified. Next union organizer Herbert Sorrell, head of the Screen Cartoonists guild set his sights on MGM and succeeded. Warner Bros. was next, and after a strike animation head Leon Schlesinger made a deal with Sorrell. He then asked…”What about Disney?’
In 1937, assistant animator Dave Hilberman told animator Art Babbitt (Of Goofy Fame) a rival union of Sorrell’s was attempting to unionize Disney. Babbitt was alarmed because the union had mob ties. Babbitt told Roy Disney, and with his OK, company attorney Gunther Lessing formed the “Cartoonists Federation” in December of 1937 which rebuffed the International Alliance of theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in forming a union with Disney. But Babbitt drew up a list of demands and presented them to Roy, who wouldn’t negotiate. Babbitt relented and disbanded the Federation rather than fight.
However, in October, 1940 Hilberman began organizing the Disney Studio on behalf of the SCG. On December 5th, the SCG informed the company they had enough cards from employees to be recognized. Walt was livid. He hated unions and no one was about to tell him how to run his company. He would rather shut down the studio. He called Babbitt in and told him to reconvene the federation so “we can stop this thing.” Babbitt refused. Walt wanted a closed-shop agreement with the federations to freeze out any other union. Next month, Babbitt defected and joined Hilberman with the Cartoonist Guild.
Sorrell threatened to turn the Disney studio into a “Dust Bowl” if they didn’t recognize the SCG. Disney made another speech to appeal to his employees. In two shifts he addressed the staff and tried to convince them a union was not a good idea for the future of animation. He tried to deny many of the things that bothered the staff never existed and the way to save the company was through smaller salary cuts and budget reductions. He tried to implore to the animators the studios sense of mission; the quality of the animated cartoon. But many thought it was a sob story. Walt had lost all patience. In hopes to squash the rebellion once and for all, he fired 20 animators, all SCG members. On May 27th, he let go Art Babbitt for union activities. This was the last straw. A mass meeting of Disney employees voted to strike, and it began on May 29th, 1941.
The strike lasted five weeks and took its toll on the studio. Production on current features stopped, and Walt began to see the damage the strikers were causing. With pressure from all sides, Walt and Gunther Lessing accepted binding arbitration by a three man panel. Walt then left for the famous Goodwill tour of South America; the strike was settled by the mediators, all in favor of the SCG. Workers returned to work on September 21st 1941, many salaries doubled. This strike changed animation in a most profane way. The Disney Strike spawned new studios, new creative styles, new characters and changed animation forever. Many cartoonists who worked for Disney now struck out by themselves. Frank Tashlin created Looney Tunes. Hank Ketcham, the comic strip “Dennis the Menace” The “UPA” Studio was created by ex-Disney unionists, and Walt Kelly penned the famous “Pogo” comic. And the company United Productions of America (UPA) was created by former Disney workers.
And the strike forever changed Walt Disney. He was deeply hurt. Ward Kimball said “Guys he had trusted were letting him down.” Walt saw himself as benevolent and thought that everyone was chafing over what he believed were relatively minor grievances. But after such a long, bitter strike no one at Disney wanted to forgive or forget. Now Walt looked at even the most loyal artists with suspicion. The studio spirit was destroyed, and whenever cutbacks had to be made, union members were the first to go. Those who stayed were treated badly and lost out on bonuses and pay raises. There are many who believe the strike was a good thing for animation, others believe it destroyed something special that Walt had created. But it did change animation and Walt Disney forever.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.