Thursday, April 16, 2009

Union Thuggery?

Here's an interesting tale of the Fleischer studios, which includes this morsel about the Fleischer's departure from New York in the late thirties ... and why it happened:

“The unions were taken over by the Mafia,” recalls Steve Stanchfield, an animator in his own right, as well as a prominent historian in the field. “One of the major reasons why Fleischer wanted out of New York was union pressure. Dave Fleischer was beat up. Myron Waldman (one of the legends who worked under the Fleischers) told me they put Dave in the hospital. If the Fleischers made a big fuss about it, their families’ lives would be in danger. There was some definite malfeasance going on there.”

I think Mr. Waldman is using time-honored hyperbole here. The Fleischers definitely resisted the Commercial Artists and Designers Union through 1936 and most of 1937, but ... whattayaknow? .. the Fleischer studio in New York was signed with the IATSE (the union then run by the old Capone mob) for its camera operators.

To put it succinctly: there was no reason for dear old Max to have been beaten up by "the Mafia," because he already had a contract with them thugs.

Tom Sito in Drawing the Line offers another reason for the Fleischer's move to sunny Florida:

On October 19, [1937] the Fleischer Studio finally recognized the CADU ... The Fleischer brothers still had one more trick up their sleeves. Both Max and Dave owned property in Florida and were being courted with tax breaks by the city of Miami to move their operations south ...

The CADU knew this was a union-busting tactic but could do nothing to stop it. ... The studio began to move in the spring of 1938 and paid moving costs for all those who wished to relocate. Most hard-core union animators refused to move and stayed in New York; the rest were intimidated into forgoing further union activity.

So ... mob fists scared Max and Dave Fleischer to Miami? Not hardly. The prospect of tax breaks and a right-to-work state turned the trick.

The ultimate irony here is that Florida proved to be a far more expensive place for a cartoon studio to do business than unionized Manhattan. The Fleischers had to ship film to labs, had to lure animators from L.A. with high salaries. Within five years the studio folded, and the Fleischers' old distributor Paramount Pictures formed a New York-based union studio to continue its valuable Popeye shorts.

It wasn't union thugs that made possible the first Florida animation studio. It was our old friend M-O-N-E-Y.


Jeff Massie said...

In addition to Sito, animation historian Harvey Deneroff, whose wrote his USC Doctoral dissertation ("Popeye The Union Man") on the Fleischer strike, makes no mention of any Fleischer being beaten up by "thugs".

Harvey Deneroff said...

There was some violence in the early days of the 1937 Fleischer strike, but when some Fleischer loyalists tried to cross the picket line. Dave Fleischer, according to his widow, had no desire to move the studio to Miami, but instead wanted to move to Hollywood (though this would have certainly aided the Fleischer union, which would likely have merged with the nascent Screen Cartoonists Guild.)

I never found any reference to the Fleischer Studios having an IATSE contract for their camera operators; their only union contract, as far as I know, was with the Musicians Union (of which Dave Fleischer was a member); Charlie Schettler, the head of the camera department, had his nose broken by a picket sign when he tried to cross the picket line; but his desire to cross the picket line was simply motivated by company loyalty.

Tom is wrong when he states that "Most hard-core union animators refused to move [to Miami] and stayed in New York; the rest were intimidated into forgoing further union activity." While the company certainly did not make it comfortable for union members, the union (which had never been able to get a closed shop contract) was able to negotiate terms for the move to Miami knowing that Florida Sen. Claude Pepper would see to it that it was enforced; however, the agreement did stipulate that a certification election would be held in Miami, which the union lost (though a number of members did make the move just to vote with the intention of coming back to New York as soon as possible). Despite losing the election, the terms of the union contract remained in place.

The remnants of the Fleischer union eventually returned to New York and it essentially merged with the New York local of the Screen Cartoonists Guild in 1943.

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