Every American has grown up on Disney movies, but how many people have heard of “the civil war in animation”?
Cultural analyses of Disney and his products are common, and the sociological effects of his multimedia domination have been discussed ad infinitum. But little attention has been paid to the 1941 animators’ strike that nearly upended the Magic Kingdom. Never before or after has the labor behind the movies that shaped billions of childhoods been so sharply illuminated. As new workers’ struggles break out across the entertainment industry, this history is more relevant today than ever.
Working for Walt
Walt Disney could not rely on his own artistic talent to build his empire. He was known neither for being a fine artist nor a good draftsman. The Simpsons have even satirized him for plagiarizing Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from their original creator, Ub Iwerks.
His success instead turned on his ability to transform the incredibly labor-intensive animation process. Major technological expansions allowed Disney to synchronize image and sound, pushing animation beyond its crude beginnings. This advance brought animation — and with it, the Magic Kingdom — from the margins of filmmaking to its mainstream.
When Disney made Snow White, animators still drew figures by hand on clear celluloid panels, which were then placed above one or two layers of static background painted on paper. To create the illusion of movement, animators had to produce twenty-four images for every second. For Snow White, workers made 130,000 movement drawings, not to mention the background panels.
To streamline this process, Disney put more than eight hundred artists on an assembly line of industrial-scale production. His method for controlling workers within this massive operation consisted of psychological tactics culled from the studies of the day. He played favorites, stole credit from workers, and paid different wages for the same job. For example, select animators received parking spots and reserved seats at in-house test screenings while others had to scramble for the remaining seats or stay away all together.
Wages ranged from $12 to $300 a week. If an animator came up with a joke while working on a short, they got a $3.50 bonus.
Walt Disney believed that an effective company was built on “teamwork” and “employee voice.” To diffuse growing discontent among animators, he launched the Disney Federation of Screen Cartoonists, a company union that he hoped would contain his workers’ demands.
The Animators Strike Back
Animators made Snow White, Fantasia, and Pinocchio all at the same time. They worked long hours under extreme pressure, and many went without pay for months. Walt said that they would receive a bonus payment once Snow White turned a profit — an empty promise all too familiar among creative workers today. When the pay never materialized, it sparked a sense of injustice among the animators.
Surprisingly, Art Babbitt, a head animator and president of the company union, sympathized with the low-wage workforce. He initially joined the Disney Federation of Screen Cartoonists in order to fight off the corrupt International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which was connected to organized crime. But Babbitt was soon demanding a two-dollar raise for inkers.
Little did he know what awaited him. Babbitt immediately had to face Disney’s legal counsel, Gunther Lessing. In a former life Lessing had collaborated with Mexico’s revolutionary president Francisco Madero and defended radicals in court. Now working for Disney, Lessing didn’t give an inch to the unions.
There was also Walt’s brother Roy, the company’s finance director. He resorted to physical threats, telling Babbitt to keep his nose out of their business or else they’d “cut it off.”
It didn’t take long for Babbitt to realize that the Disney Federation of Screen Cartoonists was designed to keep workers from getting involved with industry-wide unionism. After one of the inkers fainted because she couldn’t afford to buy lunch, Babbitt joined Herbert Sorrell’s Screen Cartoonist’s Guild, a local of the Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers Union.
By that time, Herbert Sorrell already had experienced a tremendous amount of struggle. As a twelve-year old, he joined an Oakland sewer pipe plant, where coworkers routinely beat him. It ended when he decided to whack one of them over the head with a shovel. After World War I, he became a professional prizefighter and then moved to Los Angeles to work as a painter in the studios. After he was fired from Universal for being a union member, he channeled his energy into labor activism.
Disney was the industry’s key player. His shop would set the wages and conditions for all the animation studios. Sorrell was committed to turning the Magic Kingdom into a “dust bowl” if the company didn’t relent.
The Reluctant Dragon
The dispute had been simmering for a while when in February 1941, Walt Disney called his workers together to address “the real crisis we are facing.” In the style of today’s captive audience meetings, he explained how he had fought prejudices and established the cartoon as an art form. He regaled his underpaid workers with stories of the hungry years, the debts, and the mortgages. The speech backfired. As a May 10, 1941, Nation article put it: “This speech recruited more members for the Screen Cartoonists Guild than a year of campaigning.”
Every move Disney made exacerbated workers’ discontent. At one point, he is reported to have said, “If you boys sign with the union . . . I’ll. . . I’ll never let you swim in my pool again!” To which Al Dempster, a head animator, replied: “Walt, swimming in your pool doesn’t feed my kids or pay my rent!”
The union collected 400 union cards from 560 eligible workers. Among them, Naomi Klein’s paternal grandfather who worked at Disney as an illustrator and would end up tent-camping outside the LA studio for several months. Following unsuccessful negotiations, the staff voted for an indefinite strike starting on May 26.
Walt Disney remained intransigent and even sacked Babbitt and other head animators in retaliation. As the strike was about to begin, Disney appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to recognize the company union as workers “are free to join whatever [they] wish.”
Disney hoped that the NLRB would take his stature into account, rule in his favor, and hand over the right to collective bargaining to the firm’s preferred union. But to Walt’s dismay, the strike started as planned, and the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild brought 550 workers out on to the picket lines.
Disney responded with a campaign of intimidation. He hired photographers to document the striking workers. Worse, he laid off nineteen employees, and rumors circulated that two hundred more would follow.
The strikers chose to match the escalation and started blocking trucks from entering the studio.
But industrial muscle wouldn’t suffice. This was a fight over the future of the industry, and both sides knew it. As in other labor disputes, the strike’s power had to be expanded both horizontally into the community and vertically into the company’s business model.
Workers distributed flyers at cinemas demanding that theater managers and audiences boycott Disney pictures. They also appealed to the rest of the labor movement for food donations so that they could stay out on strike.
Vertically, they put pressure on suppliers. By mid-July, workers had convinced Technicolor to boycott Disney, stopping film from entering the studio and from being processed on the way out. Williams and British Pathé — two other companies — also suspended processing Disney films.
On July 5, the NLRB officially recognized the strike and sent a conciliator to arbitrate between the unions and Disney. Nine AFL unions returned to work, but even this couldn’t stop the animators. Disney lawyer Lessing sent a telegram to Washington blaming the ongoing work stoppage on Communists.
Cracks started to appear in the strike’s edifice. Writing on behalf of “those who had returned to work,” animator R.F. Fredericks argued that being anti-union was “the American way” and that any differences with the company should be dealt with inside the organization rather than through an external agent.
This commonly used boss’s tactic equates worker demands with an outside force, allowing the employer to regain hegemony through the words of the workplace’s silent majority.
The New Deal had finally arrived in the Magic Kingdom.
Defeat in Victory?
Yet divisions between ex-strikers and scabs ran deep, and Walt Disney didn’t forgive those who rebelled. This is why Tom Sito calls the strike the “Civil War in Animation” in his book Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson. In November 1941, Disney laid off more workers, underlining his uncompromising position.
Despite the earlier setback at the NLRB, Walt learned to use the changing political climate and McCarthyism to discourage worker organization within his growing empire. On several occasions, he testified at the House of Un-American Activities, denouncing strike participants and trade union members as Communists and accusing them of having ties to the Soviet Union.
Thanks to his testimony, many animators and writers faced unemployment, blacklisting, political prosecution, and social stigma, including prominent screenwriter and Academy Award–winner Dalton Trumbo.
We can trace today’s labor relations, union busting, and avoidance activities at Disney back to the strike. Disney’s human resources strategy is the direct ancestor of contemporary employment relations, in which grievances are individualized and costs are externalized onto workers.
With technological innovation, union avoidance strategies have become common across the animation industry. For example, the production company Titmouse, Inc., in charge of Disney’s upcoming series Motorcity, recently split into two separate companies. The second entity can subcontract work to non-union shops where wages are far lower.
Subcontracted artists will earn as little as four hundred dollars per week, the lowest wage rate (inflation-adjusted) ever earned by an American artist working on a Disney animation production. Their union colleagues earn nearly three times as much.
Meanwhile, management continues to intimidate animators. The producers of Robot Chicken claim that unionization would increase production costs by 20 to 25 percent, potentially leading to the show’s cancelation. Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland was more explicit when he stated “fuck the union” after his animators and artists joined the Animation Guild in 2014.
Back in 1931, Walter Benjamin presciently noted: “Property relations in the Mickey Mouse film; here, for the first time, one’s own arm, indeed one’s own body can be stolen.”
This applies not only to the mass audience glued to their seats but also to the workers who produce these films.