“Mr. Disney created more communists [than any other studio] with his substandard wage scales and the way he handled his people,” claimed the leader of the Conference of Studio Unions, Herb Sorrell.
One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the legendary Disney Strike of 1941 was Herb Sorrell. It was obvious that Sorrell’s rough and tumble ex-boxer ways did not endear him either professionally nor personally to Walt Disney, who was unused to the type of threats Sorrell utilized in his business dealings during other union negotiations.Herb Sorrell had come up the hard way, beginning work at the age of 12, laboring in an Oakland sewer-pipe factory for eleven hours a day. He had cut his teeth in the Bay Area labor movement under the leadership of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.
Sorrell under Bridges’ guidance had led two violent strikes in the Bay Area that he later bragged were secretly funded by the Communists. Sorrell was later responsible in the mid-1940s for several strikes that paralyzed Hollywood and pitted him against Screen Actor’s Guild President Ronald Reagan.
Herb Sorrell learned of the concerns and fears of the staff at the Disney Studios and was instrumental in leading them out on strike against the studio on May 29th, 1941.
On Wednesdays, the Leon Schlesinger Warner Bros. animators, apparently including Chuck Jones, joined their fellow animators by dressing up as characters from the French Revolution carrying on their shoulders a guillotine with an effigy of Disney lawyer Gunther Lessing who counseled Walt to stand strong against the strikers and not negotiate.
Despite the intensity of emotion (at one point outside the studio gates, Walt started taking off his coat and was ready to come to blows with animator Art Babbit before studio police stopped him), the Disney strike never emulated the bloody violence of strikes at other places.
When a rumor circulated that paid goons were going to beat up the strikers, Sorrell sent a gang of Lockheed aircraft mechanics with monkey wrenches to guard the tents of the striking animators which were pitched on the land across from the Disney Studio that later became St. Joseph’s Hospital. It turned out to be merely a rumor and no damage was done.
Walt told a newspaper columnist that he was “convinced that this entire mess was Communist inspired and led” and that “I’m not licked; I’m incensed” and that “I am thoroughly disgusted and would gladly quit and try to establish myself in another business if it were not for the loyal guys who believe in me…..I have a case of the D.D.s — disillusionment and discouragement.”
I ran across Sorrell’s description of what he saw during the strike and for your enlightenment, here it is a first hand account of what it was like decades ago when the Disney strike was happening.
From the testimony of Herbert K. Sorrell, “Jurisdictional Disputes in the Motion-Picture Industry,” Hearings before the House Committee on Education and Labor, 80th Congress (1948):
“It was particularly picturesque because these artists insisted on depicting everything on their picket lines. They had all kinds of signs. The best of them, it was their duty when off the picket line to make gags and signs.
“Gunther Lessing was Mr. Disney’s attorney, and all of the dealings I had were with Gunther Lessing. I had never met Disney but once. Gunther Lessing was a redheaded attorney who bragged that he was counsel for Pancho Villa. I told him, of course, I never had heard of Pancho Villa ever winning a legal victory. I thought it was the other kind, and I did not see where he got any glory out it, but he still brought it up to everyone who met with him.
“The kids hung an effigy of Gunther Lessing, with the red hair, in front of the gate upon a pole. Disney had made a picture of something about a dragon — The Reluctant Dragon. One day the picket line assumed a dragon three or four blocks long, the head weaving, with Disney’s face as the dragon’s face. There were all kinds of things like this.
“Then, lo and behold, about 5 o’clock would come along the Schlesinger group in automobiles decorated all about Disney. The fact of the matter is, Mr. Schlesinger’s artists, I think, spent all their time making up gags about Disney, so that when work was out they picketed him with them.
“We had a sound wagon there, and we talked over the sound wagon, and we had a sound system which we installed across the street on a side hill. Every morning we would picket, the kids would picket from 7:30 to 9, and then they would go over to this side hill and from 10 to 11 or 11:30, we would talk to them on a loud speaker system, and of course they could hear in Disney’s what we were saying across the street.
“Also, on this hill we had a cafeteria set up, the carpenters built tables, and in California it was summertime, it was all sunshine, and it did not have to be protected from the rain. So they built tables and the culinary workers furnished us a chef, and we served lunch.
“At dinnertime we served dinner at 6 o’clock after the mass picket line would go off, after the workers had gone through. And then the musicians many nights would send down a truckload of musicians and they would play and these kids would dance in the street in front of the gates.
“Mr. Disney, when he could not get any police from the city, decided to hire 50 private police from outside the city. These fellows came in and the usual rough tactics — began to push these kids around, and some of the young kids were not to be pushed around, they were strapping young men. So I ordered them all inside. I said, ‘You are working for Disney, you get inside.’
“We almost came to blows there. But the Burbank police joined me in ordering the people that Disney had hired inside the property line, so they lined up inside the gate; they were helpless, nothing happened, and there was still no violence.”