Another selection from Tom Sito's upcoming book, this time on the labor struggles in a 1930s New York animation studio...
Tom Sito by Hans Bacher.
...It was no surprise that animation unions first found fertile ground in New York City. The major studios in the city in the 1930s were Fleischer and Van Beuren's, with Terrytoons up in suburban New Rochelle.
...The Van Beuren studio seemed to have fallen behind all its competitors in quality and output. None of the studio's characters...had captured the public's fancy the way Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop had... Future Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin did a stint there and later was inspired to do a syndicated comic strip about the place called "Van Boring."
Van Beuren changed producers and directors frequently, looking for a team to make his studio a winner, but the mismanagement of work schedules caused his shop's cartoons to fall seriously behind and way over budget. The supervisors' solution to make up the time was to demand that everyone put in long hours of overtime nights and weekends, all for free.
... When Burt Gillett, the director of "The Three Little Pigs," (1933) left Walt Disney to run Van Beuren, everyone hoped that things would improve. Gillett tried to introduce the rigorous standards of quality he learned making Silly Symphonies at Disney, but he did this while still asking for the same low-budget deadlines made up with uncompensated extra work time ...
According to several sources, the hard-drinking Gillett quickly earned a reputation for emotional outbursts and instability. The artists held regular informal sessions at the Metropole Bar a few doors from the studio to complain about their situation.
Numbers of artists, including Bill Carney, Lou Appet and Sadie Bodin, began to meet with representatives of the AMPWU to discuss going union. Spies in the crowd soon reported everything to Gillett. On February 14, 1935, Gillett called a staff meeting. He shocked everyone when he said he knew all about the union talk and that there had been a meeting. Bill Littlejohn, who was nineteen years old at the time, told me, "The big artists came out of Burt's office white as sheets." The staff shrank back, intimidated, but the grumbles of discontent continued.
Left: Sadie Bodin, circa 1937. Photo courtesy Harvey Deneroff.
Another snitch told Gillett that an inker named Sadie Bodin was overheard in the ladies' room encouraging her girlfriends to stand up to him and not to do the extra work. Gillett's reaction was to immediately fire her. Sadie angrily confronted Gillett. She said that since the Wagner Act had just passed in Washington, firing her for wanting a union was now against the law. Burt Gillett responded that he fired her not for organizing but merely to replace with someone "whose attitude was better."
On April 17, 1935, Sadie Bodin and her husband became the first people ever to picket an animation studio. They stood during the lunch hour for several days on Seventh Avenue with signs reading, "Van Beuren Violates Sec. 7-A NRA by Firing Union Labor for Union Activity." Her coworkers shuffled mutely past her in and out of the building, eyes down. They were all too intimidated to go out and stand with her.
-- "Drawing the Line" pp. 70-74
Below: Sadin Bodin, at the time she accepted her Golden Award in 1987.
Despite legal action, Sadie wasn't rehired. The struggle to unionize Van Beuren failed, but in 1936 the studio went out of business. Burt Gillett returned to the West Coast, where he worked for Walter Lantz and his old employer Walt Disney.
It was another six years before most animation studios were unionized.