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Storyboards and Solidarity

The current Hollywood strikes have a precedent in Disney’s golden age, when the company was a hothouse of innovation and punishing expectation.

In 1934 Walt announced plans to make what he proclaimed would be the world’s first-ever animated feature. (He either failed to acknowledge, or wasn’t aware of, earlier full-length works by Quirino Cristiani in Argentina or Lotte Reiniger in Germany.) Snow White, eventually released in December 1937, became his obsession. The production of the film led to “harrowing” conditions for workers, Friedman writes: “Each inker was expected to trace thirty cels per day and each painter to complete seventeen cels a day.” The strain of this project pushed Walt and Roy toward a more authoritarian, corporate model for the studio—and pushed Babbitt and the rest of the staff to unionize with the Screen Cartoonists Guild, which later became the Animation Guild. The mid-1930s to the end of the 1941 strike make up most of The Disney Revolt.

American labor history is filled with weird flip-flops and betrayals, but the journey of the Animation Guild may rank among the strangest. The guild is now Local 839 of IATSE, a large North American union that represents some 168,000 workers in the entertainment trades. But IATSE was once the nemesis of the Animation Guild’s predecessor. In the labor tumult of the 1930s and 1940s, IATSE was more a racketeering front than a union. Its leaders in Hollywood, the union president George Browne and Willie Bioff, an ally of Al Capone’s, extorted business from studio chiefs and workers under threat of violence. In 1938 a challenger emerged in animation: the Screen Cartoonists Guild, led by Herb Sorrell, a boxer and housepainter turned organizer. “Of all the many crafts in Hollywood, animation was the last to get unionized,” Friedman writes.

Sorrell’s Screen Cartoonists Guild and Bioff’s IATSE competed for inroads into Disney. Workers there wanted higher pay, regular schedules, a grievance process, and job security—at the time apprentices auditioned for months with no guarantee of real employment. Walt, Roy, and their scurrilous lawyer, Gunther Lessing, hated the idea of a union. They convinced Babbitt, who was seen as the leader of the staff, to form an in-house employee club, a company union that they could control. Babbitt was naive at first, believing that the company might negotiate in good faith. “I knew nothing about unions and really stepped into this,” he later said.