Wednesday, May 24, 2006

65 Years Ago: The Disney Strike

On May 28, 1941, Disney artists voted to strike for their first union contract. The following day, they hit the bricks ... (Guild President Emeritus Tom Sito, whose history of animation unions, Drawing The Line, will be published later this year, writes about the Disney strike here.) My father, Disney background artist Ralph Hulett, was one of the employees who crossed the line and kept working during the two-month strike. Years later he told me that he had been threatened by strikers when he crossed; he was an anti-union stalwart for the rest of his life. (No doubt if he knew what his oldest son was doing for a living, he wouldn't be thrilled. But he died shortly after I was discharged from the Navy... and long before I worked at Disney.) Year by year, the participants who carried a picket sign in that 1941 job action become fewer. In fact, the only artist I know about who's still active and working is Bill Melendez, now well into his eighties. (There are, of course, a few hearty survivors who are retired.) But it's important to remember what those Disney artists and technicians did all those decades ago. If not for them, salaries would be far lower, and health and pension benefits much more paltry. It's seldom discussed in histories of Hollywood, but Disney assistants, breakdown artists, and painters saw their weekly salaries almost double after the strike ended. In fact, I sometimes theorize that I owe my existence to that 1941 strike. Why? Because my father finally made enough money -- after the picket signs were put away -- to marry and support a wife.


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