Disney strike, 1941 Disney strike, 1941. Photo: Los Angeles Times / UCLA / CC BY 4.0

As striking writers and actors bring Hollywood to a standstill, Morgan Daniels looks back at the 1941 Disney strike and how it kickstarted a radical tradition

The ongoing strike by the Writers’ Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild stands in a long tradition of class struggle in Hollywood. Since 1936, more than twenty strikes have been called by unions representing writers, actors, directors, set decorators, and animators on the West Coast: a majority of which have resulted in increased pay or improved working conditions. Several of these disputes have been lengthy: a nationwide strike by commercial actors in 2000, for instance, lasted nearly half a year.

Industrial action in Hollywood also tends to be extremely costly for the employer. When screenwriters last went on strike, back in the winter of 2007-8, it was estimated that profits in the entertainment industry were hit to the tune of $500 million. When labour is withdrawn, the true source of Hollywood’s vast wealth is revealed.

One strike that clearly demonstrated this lesson took place in 1941 at Walt Disney’s studios, where workers’ grievances were many and varied. For one thing, animators had been forced to work gruelling overtime without additional pay on Disney’s 1937 vanity project, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They had been promised a 20% share of the film’s profits, but despite Snow White grossing more than any other sound movie ever made at the time – more than $8 million – those bonuses never materialised.

Instead, Snow White funded Disney’s state-of-the-art new studio at Burbank, twelve miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Capable of producing at least one new animated feature a year, Disney’s Burbank campus was equipped with a wide range of facilities such as a restaurant and a gym which were only accessible to the company’s head writers and animators.

Another source of rank-and-file discontent was the seemingly random pay structure at Disney. ‘You might be sitting next to a guy doing the same thing as you’ explained the animator Willis Pyle, ‘and you might be getting $20 a week more or less than him.’ Matters were only made worse when Disney started laying off staff following the commercial failure of both Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940.

Union membership in Hollywood had grown rapidly in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression and the resultant attacks on workers’ conditions. One highly successful union was the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild (SCG), which was formed in 1938 and within two years had secured collective agreements with every American animation studio – except Disney, where a company union had been established to stymie workers’ attempts to organise independently.

In 1941, however, many aggrieved Disney employees joined the SCG and plotted to unionise. Among these employees was Art Babbitt, a senior animator who enjoyed all the benefits of Burbank and had been appointed as an official in the company union, yet had tremendous sympathy with those on the shop floor. Babbitt and two leading labour organisers approached Walt Disney, demanding that he unionise his studio. He was having none of it, and on 28 May, Disney fired Babbitt and sixteen other SCG members in his workforce.

The very next morning, at least 200 Disney workers came out on strike and would not return to work for nearly four months. The picket line was maintained 24 hours a day, and perhaps predictably, was a hoot. Handmade placards bore images of some of Disney’s most famous creations accompanied by slogans and words of advice. ‘I’d rather be a dog than a scab’, insisted Pluto, whilst Jiminy Cricket counselled: ‘It’s not cricket to pass a picket’. On one memorable day, a team of cartoonists from the Warner Brothers studio came to offer their solidarity, turning up with an operational guillotine in which they placed a dummy dressed as Walt Disney’s attorney, Gunther Lessing. Led by the legendary Chuck Jones—bare-chested and wearing a black mask—the visitors, according to one report, ‘kept cutting Gunther Lessing’s head off over and over.’

Solidarity really was the watchword of the strike. At Technicolor, developers refused to process Disney films. The League of Women Shoppers, a consumer advocacy organisation, picketed theatres that screened Disney productions. When Walt Disney was scheduled to tour South America as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ for the U.S. state, it was the National Maritime Union which provided the SCG with the names of union leaders in cities on his itinerary – it was this particular act of practical solidarity, in fact, which forced the dispute to adjudication.

The settlement was a great victory for labour: Disney was forced to sign an agreement with the SCG which standardised wages across the studio and introduced a grievance procedure.  All SCG members fired by Disney prior to the strike were reinstated.

The 1941 Disney strike teaches us many things. It’s a reminder, for one, that no capitalist is too strong or powerful to be defeated by collective action. Walt Disney was as famous as could be, and had friends aplenty in government, yet he was humiliated in 1941.

A smaller but hardly insignificant lesson from the dispute is the power of imaginative protest. Above all else, the dispute demonstrated that solidarity is not an empty word, but rather something essential for victory. The support for the animators’ strike inside and outside of industry was widespread and coordinated. Remember this when people try and tell you today’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike isn’t our struggle too.

From Counterfire freesheet August 2023

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