29th May 1941.
A date filled with significant events for Disney and yet they are probably more taboo than anything surrounding Song of the South.
Despite the huge impact of that day on the entire American film and animation industry, the Disney company are not going to talk about it, acknowledge it, or even reference it in modern-day animation and film-making.
For on that day, hundreds of Disney employees walked out on strike. The strike lasted for months, disrupting production on a number of projects and brought down the folksy atmosphere of the studios that Walt wanted.
Employee grievances such as salary cuts, layoffs, wage distribution, long hours, and merit had been brewing during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but its unexpected success increased tension behind the scenes. This influenced many animators to look towards the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild (SCG) for support. One animator and staunch unionist was Art Babbit, one of the highest ranking animators, and who openly detested Walt.
With many other smaller animation studios such as MGM and Looney Tunes already committed to the SCG and unionisation, they believed it was only time before the Disney studios fully cooperated. However, Walt wasn’t having any of it. He wanted to run the studios his own way.
In the February before the strike, he gave this following speech to his employees:
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 organisation 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.
Many employees left this meeting infuriated and recruited more to join the guild. As Babbit was one of the leaders, tensions grew between him and Walt. However, on the day before the strike, Walt decided enough was enough and terminated Babbit’s employment, citing his cause “union activities.”
On that day and during the strike, all animators were forced with a choice – join the strike, risking unemployment and the horrors of the depression, or cross the picket line, go into work and earn the lasting hatred of friends and colleagues. There was no middle ground.
Those who did carry on working, especially those who worked on Dumbo, referenced the strikers in the film. They became clowns who wanted to go and “hit the big boss for a raise.”
Even animators from other studios came out to support the plight, wanting Walt to change his mind and relent. Support for the strike was so influential that the American Federation of Labour (AFL) picketed theatres showing Disney films, and Technicolor (who worked with Disney) refused to process the films until Walt and the rest of the studio recognised the guild.
Undoubtedly, Walt was furious and felt betrayed. He saw the picket lines as an affront to his paternalistic style of leadership and he no longer believed that he could trust anyone, even his loyal allies. Later on whenever there was a staff cutback, the union supporters were the first to go, and when the Federally mandated 90-day arbitration period ended, Disney fired even more. In 1956, he did however try to find the silver lining by saying that the strike cleaned house better than he could ever have done.
Regardless, it still had a heavy impact on him and the studios. When the studios opened properly again in the September, they had 694 workers on the payroll – down significantly from the 1,200 at the beginning of the strike. He was also forced to reinstate Art Babbit again after he’d gone through the courts, believed to be unfairly dismissed.
Moving Walt aside for the moment, the strike had a huge impact on the history of Hollywood animation, spawning new studios (particularly the UPA), creative styles, and characters. The summer events also influenced the foundation of four major comic strips, and many ex-Disney animators became important figures in the comic book world including Walt Kelly, Hank Ketcham, George Baker and Sam Cobein.
In fact Tom Sito, a former president of the Animation Guild and Disney animator from the Renaissance era called it “The Civil War of Animation.”
Whilst the strike was not the first animation strike to happen, it was the most notable as Disney was the biggest and most prestigious of all the studios.
Regardless of what Walt Disney thought about the strike, none of us can deny that it gave Disney employees the rights that they deserved. It might have also changed the studio, forcing them to accept that the age of innocence was over but salaries doubled and screen credits were established.
Despite what I initially thought about the strike, I didn’t realise there was so much discontent going on behind the scenes. It just proves that Disney wasn’t and isn’t as perfect as we automatically deem it to be. A lot of work goes on to make the magic and as Mr Gold would say, magic comes with a price. That price back then was obviously the strike and even though unionisation was against Walt’s wishes, he had to bend to accept the will of everyone.
Walt Disney was not a perfect leader and this strike clearly highlighted his flaws, personally and professionally.
As I can’t seem to input video, I will leave some links to the videos talking about the strike down below.
Had you heard of the animator’s strike?
Do you think Disney should recognise it as part of its history?
Thanks for reading and have a brazzle dazzle day!