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This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1941

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On May 29, 1941, cartoonists at Disney went on strike. This ultimately successful strike was a critical point in the organizing of Hollywood and also marked the end of Disney’s run as an innovative artistic force, so bitter did it make Walt Disney.

Walt Disney was a tremendously successful man in 1941. His work, particularly 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1940’s Pinocchio and 1940’s Fantasia had made him one of the most famous artists in the world. In the wake of this success, his studio expanded rapidly, from 200 employees in 1935 to 1100 in 1940. Disney was also a notorious right-winger and anti-communist. This put his politics well outside the mainstream for American artists. They were also starkly different than the writers and animators Disney hired.

Cartoonist organizing began in 1936 with the founding of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG). In 1937, the AFL-affiliated Commercial Artists and Designer Studio won an initial strike at Fleischer. In 1940, the SCG decided to take on the big three animation companies, MGM, Schlesinger (Warner Brothers), and Disney. By May 1941, the first two were organized and the companies had acquiesced. But Disney proved harder, in part because it hired the cream of the crop and some of the animators thought themselves above unions, in the way that some elite workers always see organizing with their peers as a step down for them (this is certainly the case with a large number of very successful professors, for example). And in some ways, Disney animators had it better than others. But Disney himself was highly paternalistic. He set low wages, demanded long hours and refused to pay overtime, and he demanded total submission to his executive authority. He also paid people different wages on a whim, causing a lot of resentment when you knew the person next to you was getting more for no good reason. Cartoonists also did not receive professional screen credit for their work. Disney preferred to take personal credit for everything that came out of his studio. Finally, all of their work was the intellectual property of Disney. Everything they drew belonged to him. This infuriated the cartoonists.

In the fall of 1940, the SCG began organizing Disney. It appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, at this time an openly pro-union outfit in the federal government, to recognize the union. But it demurred and as Disney refused to recognize it and then fired 24 union activists in an open purge, the union members voted to walk out on May 29. This was risky as it only had about half the cartoonists committed. This led to a lot of tension on the lines, with a lot of scabbing going on and the bitterness that creates among those striking. Within a week, the United States Labor Conciliation Service stepped in to mediate. But it did not go well because Disney was so recalcitrant. He personally threatened many strikes and vowed revenge against them by name. He claimed they were communists or communist dupes. He had his own company union, even those they were outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act, and he was determined to keep it. The NLRB issued an unfair labor practice against Disney for this during the strike; Disney’s response was to change its name and nothing else.

Generally, the divided workforce fell along generational lines, with older workers opposing the strike, along with poorly paid women painters. Younger male workers tended to support the strike. But this was not universal. Art Babbit was Disney’s chief cartoonist, the inventor of Goofy, the wicked stepmother in Snow White, and Gepetto in Pinocchio. He was also one of the 24 agitators Disney fired.

The strikers became known for their witty signs, often using the same Disney characters they created, as the image at the top of this post suggests. They published comic strip accounts of the strike in local publications. They received a lot of support from other unions. The Society of Motion Picture Film Editors supported the strike and the processing of Disney films at the Technicolor, Williams, and Pathe labs stopped. Disney workers also went out in support of other unions, including the United Auto Workers strike at North American Aviation. Disney workers picketed in front of the showings of Disney films, which made bigger connections between them and the various Popular Front organizations in Los Angeles, such as Film Audiences for Democracy and the League of Women Shoppers, who sent Disney a notice that they supported the strikers and would spread that endorsement through the nation.

The strike only ended because the government convinced Disney to go on a goodwill tour in South America as part of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Doing so allowed more reasonable heads at Disney to prevail and the strike to be settled. Even here though, Disney’s position was a problem. South American unions were aware of the Disney strike and were protesting him. Blackie Myers, head of the National Maritime Union, told the government he planned to notify the South American unions in the ports where his members disembarked. The government now mediated the strike more intensely. On August 6, a settlement was reached. However, on August 15, Disney threatened to layoff 207 of the returned strikers, leading to a second two-week strike. Finally, near the end of August, all issues were settled and the strikers returned to work. Everyone on the payroll on May 15 was reinstated, including the 24 fired union supporters. Pay rates were equalized by job, taking away Disney’s personal power to set pay rates capriciously. A system of salaries and classifications was set, severance pay created, draftees into the upcoming war would receive 6 weeks salary, and a grievance procedure was created. The SCG also became the bargaining agent for Disney workers.

Disney was furious at the negative publicity. And he never got over it. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he said the only way his workers had received that much publicity was because of communist coordination. He claimed, in the kind of whining that one is used to hearing today from Donald Trump, a man whom Disney shared no small number of traits, “I even went through the same smear in South America and generally throughout the world all of the Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pictures.” Sad!

Disney’s bitterness over the strike undermined his own artistic creations. He reduced staffing at the studio and his personal period of creativity ended. Some of the Disney strikers became radicalized during the strike and became more involved in the Popular Front, producing cartoons not only for the war effort but for left-wing unions and even a cartoon intended to help organize the South during Operation Dixie.

I borrowed from Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century in the writing of this post.

This is the 223rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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