ANIMATION ANECDOTES
July 3, 2020 posted by Jim Korkis

The 1941 Disney Strike

Suspended Animation #274

I am a fan of Tom Sito’s work (both as an animator and as an author) and in 2006, he wrote a good book over four hundred pages long entitled Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. Sito himself was once president of an animation union which gave him a unique perspective to explore the history of animation unions.

Finding information on the 1941 animation strike at the Disney Studio can be especially challenging and I was impressed with the material he presented since I am fascinated by the topic. I even wrote a Suspended Animation column about it last year.

I am constantly adding magazines to my collection that include information on Disney or animation and I would like to share one of my fairly recent acquisitions since I am going to assume most of you don’t have it but may be interested in a contemporary view of the strike when it was going on.

The Screen Actor Magazine was published for union members of SAG (Screen Actor Guild) and was deeply concerned about the anti-labor attitude of the country. In the June 1941 issue, they published an extensive article about the Disney Strike which at that time was a little over a week old. While there are always at least two sides to every story, here at least is one version.

The article featured a large photo featuring Mrs. Dic McDermott, Sara Jones and Marianne DePew holding picket signs that declare “1 Genius Against 1200 Guinea Pigs” and a large two foot cutout of an angry Donald Duck holding a picket sign saying “Pin Money Can’t Keep Me In Pinfeathers”.

THE SCREEN ACTOR MAGAZINE
June 1941
STRIKE AT DISNEY

Screen Cartoon Guild walks out on Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, as SAG and other unions pledge support of cartoonists’ colorful picket line at Burbank Studio.

It was something different: The New York newspaper PM tabbed the placard-carrying marchers in front of the home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck “the most unique picket line in labor’s history”; Dorothy Parker wired that she had always wondered if Mickey was a mouse or a rat; signs from the skilled and expensive drawing boards of artists capable of producing Fantasia quipped, “Tain’t cricket to pass a picket”…”First degree from Harvard; second came from Yale; my fellows get the third degree; but get it in the tail”…

It was something fundamentally the same: a young labor union, recognized by the NLRB, but encountering all of the evasions and opposition possible on the part of a management determined not to be unionized; a patient group of union members, with patience finally snapped by mass discharges decimating their working ranks; a union striking for recognition, a Guild shop, adequate wages.

So, while the public was titillated by the sight of comely girl artists parading in a picket line beneath posters painted by high-salaried creators, organized labor recognized the basic facts of a real union crisis and rallied to the support of Screen Cartoon Guild, Local 852, Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators, in its strike against the Walt Disney Studio.

Directors of the Screen Actors Guild heard the story of the Disney efforts to avoid unionization from Chairman Art Babbitt of the Screen Cartoon Guild, then appropriated funds to help feed the strikers. While some of the top Disney artists and animators were paid in some proportion to their great skill (Chairman Babbitt, himself, was a top animator in the industry), the fact was that most of the employees on strike were low-paid and interruption of their pay checks quickly pinched at the meal table. To the Screen Cartoon Guild members, the SAG Board of Directors telegraphed:

“The Screen Actors Guild pledges its moral and financial support ($1,000 + a week) to the Screen Cartoon Guild in the present strike action by the anti-labor tactics of the Walt Disney Studio. The Disney Company’s activities in disregard of National Labor Relations Board decisions, together with the other facts, make it clear that you had no other recourse than to strike your rights to bargain collectively. To the loyal members of the Screen Cartoon Guild we extend our sympathy because of the personal sacrifices which are necessary and our congratulations that your members have demonstrated the courage necessary to make such sacrifices.”

On May 28, when the Screen Cartoon guild struck the Disney Studio, film editors quickly followed suit. Soon 16 crafts were out. Wheels of work at the elaborate $3,000,000 Burbank factory for manufacturing animated enchantment for the screen slowed down, rumbled, and then stood virtually still – despite Walt Disney’s claims that production was being maintained.

Back of the strike action was a sequence of events following a path as tortuous, and frequently as ridiculous, as nay hare-and-the-hounds chase the Disney organization has ever prepared for the screen. In April, the National Labor Relations Board’s acting regional director, William Walsh, said the Federation of Screen Cartoonists at the studio was a company union and charges were referred to Washington. Disney still refused to negotiate with the Screen Cartoon Guild, contending the FSC was the NLRB’s officially designated bargaining agent, according to a 1939 decision.

Screen Cartoon claiming and clearly having a majority of the eligible employees, five times offered Disney a cross-check and twice prepared for an election. Each time Disney slipped away. In mid-May Disney agreed with the NLRB to a consent decree, junking the company-dominated Federation of Screen Cartoonists, and the Screen Cartoon Guild demanded immediate recognition. But, no, as quickly as you could say “Mickey Mouse” the American Society of Screen Cartoonists appeared on the scene with the same officers and same mail address as its predecessor company union.

Then firings started. First to go were 22 artists, including Chairman Babbitt of the Screen Cartoon Guild, then the fired list went to 35, rumor had it a total of 100 were to go. Watching the leaders of their organization eliminated from the plant by the firing route, members of the Screen Cartoon Guild on May 26 took a 315 to 4 strike vote and two days later struck the plant.

Within and without the industry, prompt support came to the side of the Disney cartoonists. Laboratory technicians told Technicolor not to try to force lab men to work at Disney’s or Technicolor itself would be struck. Pressure went to RKO to halt release of Disney films. The Screen Writers’ Guild telegraphed its support. The Los Angeles Central Labor Council said it would enforce a nationwide boycott on the Disney product if he is put on the unfair list (Screen Cartoon Guild crews picketed theaters showing Disney films).

On a shaded knoll overlooking the Disney plant, “Camp Cartoonist” sprang up-headquarters of the striking artists. Six camping tents and an improvised kitchen formed a horseshoe to border the inner camp grounds. From morning until night, men, women and children – as many as 500 at a time – busied themselves forming picket lines, reporting on activities, holding discussion groups, arranging recreation and-important-operating a soup kitchen.

With food supplies donated, in some instances, and in others purchased from a meager strike fund, the commissary crew provides three meals a day (a woman’s auxiliary takes care of dish washing). Strike duty, carried on 24 hours a day, is operated on an assignment basis: two hours per person on alternate days.

In addition, there are mass picketing periods morning and evening. Flying squadrons, which picket theaters, leave the camp each evening. “Chalk talk pickets” sketch as they picket to amuse the public. Strikers keep up their morale with a full recreation program, including baseball games, horseshoe pitching, ping pong, badminton, chess, checkers and, of course-sketching.

Members of the Screen Cartoon Guild will be ready to go back to work when they have won recognition.

The Screen Cartoon Guild needs:
1) Money for food.
2) Food for the soup kitchen maintained at strike headquarters
3) Benefit parties, given at any Hollywood home.

15 Comments

  • If nothing else, they had the best looking picket signs of any strike.

  • Too bad the union wasn’t there for all the 2D artists who got dumped in the early 2000s when CGI took over. Not so much as a severance package, just That’s all, folks! So animation went from Tex Avery to tech slavery.

    • That brilliant turn of phrase you’ve coined there just reminded me of a certain NFB short that examines that very issue, even going so far as using dead ringers of some of Avery’s signature characters to bring the point home.

  • The name change the Union made from the “Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists” to “The Animation Guild”, really signaled the end of the drawn animation era, didn’t it? I can’t think of Digital so-called animation as real Screen Cartooning to this day. It is a completely separate and different way of creating movement on screen, looking much more like dolls moving, than cartoons. When the change to Digital happened, there was for the most part no retraining offered to those who had been in the business for thirty years or more. Maya, the main program to learn for digital “animation”, is a difficult skill to master, involving many years study to become proficient. Cartoonists were expected to take a couple of years off with no pay to learn the new skill, with no guarantee of employment. So the old gang mostly disappeared from screen credits, except for those who could “adapt”.

    • Lots of super animation today with technology, seeing the results immediately as one works, animators filming themselves for reference with their phones or webcams, for drawn, 2d and 3d.
      Cartooning? Not so much.

      This has been my “Ok, boomer” message.

    • Uh, wouldn’t storyboarding and character designing still count as cartooning?

  • “…from Tex Avery to tech slavery….”. That may be the best turn of phrase I’ve ever read!

    I wonder if the Screen Actor Magazine ran a follow-up article on the Disney strike in a later issue, with details on how the SAG membership aided the Union cause. I’m curious to know whether any Hollywood stars held benefit parties for the striking animators in their homes.

  • “On a shaded knoll overlooking the Disney plant, “Camp Cartoonist” sprang up” •• I know it’s kind of beside the point of the article and the Union strife, but this has me curious. I can’t think of a “knoll” anywhere near enough to the Disney Studio to be able to look down on it . . unless they’re referring to Cahuenga Peak and the use of binoculars! Sadly, I have not read Tom Sito’s book, but I’m wondering if he included any photos of this tent village and its soup kitchen – and where exactly it was located. That is a lot of set-up and expense trouble to go to . . they must have anticipated the strike being a long one!

    • One source, namely “When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA” by Adam Abraham, suggests (at page 16) that Camp Cartoonist was merely in a vacant lot across Buena Vista Street; “across” being presumably across from the studio. (You can search the Google Books entry for the book for the phrase “Camp Cartoonist.”

    • Thanks for the good guess, Eric . . . I have come to the conclusion that “overlooking’ the Disney studio didn’t really mean looking ‘down’ on it from above. And there very well could have been a ‘knoll’ across Buena Vista Street where St. Joseph’s Hospital now sits. There is a creek ravine directly behind it, so the land there may have had ‘elevated’ and ‘sunken’ areas of terrain.

  • Note the picket sign with Goofy in the first picture refers to the developing “Happy Valley” budget feature film which would be delayed not only from the strike, but even more so from the war, and wouldn’t be finished until 1947 as the now retitled “Mickey and Beanstalk” segment in “Fun and Fancy Free”.

  • Not sure if photos of links to photos are allowed but
    https://images.app.goo.gl/q5TTs2o9LJVRaUYTA
    This is the Twitter site of a guy who studies the union movement in general, and while clearly from the 1941 strike, I am curious about the guy 3rd from the right – in the full suit with a heavy line drawn around his left side….
    (such lines were often drawn on photos to make them read better as halftones)

    But how does this guy manage to have his hands crossed with both feet firmly on the ground — when the people ahead of him and behind him are walking? Almost looks like a cut and paste job.. with scissors and glue, that is.

    • Not cut and paste , he is clearly walking and conversing with someone , that’s easy to cross arms and still move with this slowly moving group .

  • Thanks for bringing attention to this historic strike. The Saint Joseph Medical Center was not there in 1941. I was told that was the spot for Camp Cartoonist.

  • On my visit to the Disney Family Museum in 2016 I was interested to note that there was a significant display regarding the 1941 strike and another regarding Disney’s postwar Congressional testimony at HUAC in which he mentioned several of the strike leaders. However, I can find no trace of this on the museum’s website “virtual galleries” of those years.

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