Starting at 6 a.m. on May 28, 1941, lines were being drawn outside the gates of Walt Disney Studios between those picketing at “Camp Cartoonist” and their colleagues choosing to work. Shouts of “scab” and “fink” rained down on those who passed through the gantlet. When Walt Disney himself drove through one day, Art Babbitt — the strike leader who had been one of his most prominent animators — shouted that Disney “ought to be ashamed.” The two almost came to blows.
The Disney animators strike, launched eight decades before Hollywood’s ongoing writers and actors strikes, stunned Walt Disney, stoked his fear of communism and rattled his now-storied company.
It also, in the end, reshaped the union landscape of Hollywood, in ways that endure today.
The problem with ‘Snow White’
The animators’ trouble had its roots in spectacular success.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the studio’s first feature-length animated film, was like nothing audiences had ever seen. Characters “come to life, appearing before your eyes, under the wizard’s work of Disney and his brilliant staff of artists and animators who have devoted three long, painstaking years to the task,” one critic marveled in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Walt Disney Productions had exploded into a large company, but it still was run then like an informal, haphazard family business: Salaries ranged from less than $20 per week to hundreds of dollars for top earners, with bonuses doled out unpredictably. Rather than pay out to his employees after “Snow White,” however, Disney decided to invest in a lavish new corporate complex in Burbank, Calif.
“When he started his studio in 1923, it was just a handful of friends from Kansas City and a storefront. But now it’s like 1,200 employees, people are clocking in and out, and a lot of people he didn’t even have contact with,” said Tom Sito, author of “Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson.”
Disney workers’ discontent was growing, and so were their expectations. New labor rights, championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had emerged from the hardships of the Great Depression. Unions had swelled following the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which offered new protections for collective bargaining. And employees of Fleischer Studios, home to Betty Boop and Popeye, successfully struck in 1937, emboldening the Screen Cartoonists Guild.