Disney on Strike!
by Ronald Milligan
Part I (of II)
There are many cosmological theories and models that attempt to explain the formation of the observable universe. One such conceptual model theorizes a dense concentration to matter, followed by a cosmic explosion that expands the universe.
I do not know about the entirety of the observable universe, but in the universe of cartooning and animation, there is a case to be made that in the late 1930s the animation studio of Walt Disney Productions was very much the artistic center of gravity that attracted the very best talent in cartooning, illustration and animation. The event that ignited the Big Bang that expanded the animation universe was the Disney Strike of 1941.
In the 1930s, Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends were world-famous and immensely popular. Walt Disney’s first feature length animated film, created with the new technology of Technicolor, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This movie earned four times more revenue than any other film made in 1938. Snow White even won a special Oscar. Some critics at the time called it the greatest motion picture ever made. Long before Disneyland was marketed as the “Happiest Place on Earth”, many people thought that magical place must be Walt Disney Productions.
But success does have its darker side. Behind the PR machine, Walt Disney Productions had grown from a few friends, creating magic in cramped, intimate quarters at the Hyperion Studio, in Los Angeles, into a sprawling industrial plant setting in Burbank. In that factory, nearly 1,300 employees labored six days a week, turning out animation by the reel-full.
From a purely capitalistic standpoint, Walter Disney was benevolent. He put his readily plowed profits back into his business, generating a sense of a team-enterprise among the employees. They were all in it together, in a good way. Disney built new studio facilities and financed bolder experiments in animation and in stereophonic sound. Wages, however, generally remained low across the board.
In fact, the studio's pay structure was a chaotic mess. The pay scale was arbitrarily determined by Walt, based on the type of talent he valued. Positive interaction with the Boss was a vital key to personal earning power!
Some higher-ranking animators earned as much as $300 a week while others made as little as $12. Talk about wage disparity! And unlike later Disney animated films, screen credit was not allowed for an animator, other than for Walt Disney. Walt saw absolutely no problem with that inherently and abhorrently skewed structure. He believed the studio was his to run, and, as the majority-stockholder, he had a point. But the fine point of the cartoonist’s pencil would become a worthy adversary in the labor war between owner/management and worker.
Walt thought he could run his studio as he saw fit, and, judging from his youthful battles for economic independence from a tightwad father, he was fully justified in this belief. Walt also opined that his employees should be grateful to him for providing new studio space and challenging work. That attitude of gratitude came with a price tag for Mr. Disney!
During the late 1930s, there occurred a marked rise of new labor unions across Hollywood, largely in response to the low wages for staff employees at all of the studios in the film business. One of these new unions was the Screen Cartoonist's Guild (SCG), formed in 1938. By 1941, the SCG had secured contracts with every major cartoon studio, with the exception of Walt Disney Productions.
Much like the morphing of the mirrored-beautiful Queen into the wicked Queen in Snow White, the image of Uncle Walt as the folksy cartoonist became transformed into Mr. Disney, the chain-smoking, worry-racked capitalist. Walt still thought of himself as just one of the guys, but, to most of the employees, his employees, he was the detached factory boss.
When the animated films Pinocchio and Fantasia failed to generate the same revenue success that Snow White had amazingly produced during the Great Depression, looming layoffs gave SCG the opportunity to begin unionizing Walt’s studio. Rather than deal with inequities that he had fostered, Disney felt personally betrayed by his employees. As a risk-taker, he failed to convey to his talented artists the big gamble that is the merging of art and commerce.
This impasse usually exists between Artist and Employer. Walt Disney very naively believed that his provision of an animation studio granted him carte blanche for how that workplace was run. He did verbal battle with the union negotiators and he ultimately fired the in-studio union rep, along with 16 other employees who were members of the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild. The next day, more than 200 studio staffers went on strike, right in the middle of the production of Dumbo.
The elephant in the room had just walked out of the studio.
The strike was bitterly personal toward Walt Disney, and, to say the least, very animated. Graphic displays included a mock execution of Walt by guillotine!
The union picketing went on for nine weeks. Disney was finally persuaded by capitalist interventionists to give up his Steamboat-Willie ship that would surely sink. This bevy of brokers consisted of the mediators officially sent into the cauldron of union hostilities by the U.S. Federal government (the Labor Department); and the financiers from the Bank of America — the guys who wanted to see Dumbo completed, and brother Roy Disney who by that time was sick of the whole mess.
The Feds, all FDR-men, did not take kindly to Walt and his wholesale firing of members of this Guild (or of any guild). The bankers had a crass financial interest that must have scared the willies out of Walt. Taking the moral high ground, along with the almighty dollar, into those meetings, these men convinced Walt Disney to recognize the odious labor union that had sprung up in the midst of his wonderful world of film animation. The attitude of this enterprising, innovative, single-minded businessman was never the same.
Within a few weeks, the Walt Disney studio was back to work. Under the new unionized contract, the base
salaries for the underpaid animators doubled for a basic 40-hour workweek. Screen credits were established. SCG now represented 90 percent of the
animation workers in the factory town called Hollywood.
The price of the strike was, however, very high. The employee staff of the studio had shrunk from about 1300 to less than 700, and no one at the studio was willing to forgive or forget this wretched experience. Even when Pearl Harbor was attacked several months later, artists and management were still nursing their grudges. The creative mind, as open-hearted as it can be, can take the matter of money, in the form of a paycheck, very personally!
Shortly after the end of the strike, most of the original strikers left the studio, for a variety of reasons: drafted to fight the war; laid-off by the studio trying to recoup the inevitable losses of any strike; or quit to go to other jobs. These artists nonetheless never ceased to be artists. They would ultimately find their creative efforts rewarded in the up-and-coming fields of animation, cartooning and illustration. There were also the highly skilled technicians who left Walt Disney Productions, experts in sound and in stage, whose lives had been changed forever.
The animation artists who walked out on Disney formed an exodus that became the genesis of a vast and fertile future in television animation. In 1941, the advent of the TV was not foreseen as the newest entertainment frontier by Hollywood studio bosses, or even by Walt Disney. In December 1941, the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor signaled not only the entry of the United States into a war it had attempted, like Walt Disney with the unionization of his studio, to avoid; Pearl Harbor and the lives of American citizens were now the focus of the entertainment industry.
Among the individuals who bolted the animation studio that had not done right by them, some animators found new work in the U.S. Armed Forces. Others became professional cartoonists within a variety of industries.
Part II reveals those burgeoning worlds: U.S. military training films of World War II;
comic strips; and children’s book illustrations, as well as the texts of the
books that so many post-War babies would come to know and love. Those books, much like the highly original
animators of Disney, would later have to be defended against the noxious
tide of Political Correctness that squashes creativity and free speech. Products born of the imagination, what is presently
deemed intellectual property, somehow stay true to their basic impulse!