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Another look back at the 1941 Disney Studio strike

Another look back at the 1941 Disney Studio strike

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One of the things I have always enjoyed doing as a historian is collecting obscure magazine articles that were printed during the time period when keynote events happened during Disney history like the premiere of "Snow White" or the opening of Disneyland. I feel you get a certain insight that is often missing from articles that are written about the same events decades later.

In fact, many popular magazines of those time periods no longer exist or had such limited and exclusive distribution that most modern day researchers do not have access to them. While I have quite a collection of articles on the infamous Disney Strike of 1941, I recently added to my collection with an oddball acquisition from ebay and felt it would be nice to share with my fellow historians.

"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".

June 1941


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.

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  • Great sleuthing! As I've begun to read up on the history of this strike, I'm having a difficult time finding Disney's side of the story, since you point out that there are always at least two sides of any story. Knowing that the studio had invested profits from Snow White into a new studio to grow the business rather than profit share as had been done in the past, then lost a large amount of money on Pinocchio and Fantasia, this perfect storm required cost savings in some form, one of which were staff reductions that were apparently not handled well by Disney. I'm wondering how many were laid off before the strike, because the fallout from the strike was that while most employees had their salaries doubled, employment went from over 1200 to under 700, resulting in only a small net loss in labor cost to Disney but with 500 people losing their jobs. Is there information available that indicates that more people would have lost their jobs without the strike, because I'm struggling with what this strike ultimately did to benefit labor, with such a loss of jobs, since to that point Disney's animators were the best paid in the business.

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