Sunday, May 29, 2011

Seventy Years (and a Day) Ago

H/t for photo above: Jenny Lerew

President Emeritus Tom Sito writes:

1941- 70 Years Ago- THE WALT DISNEY STRIKE- Labor pressures had been building in the Magic Kingdom since promises made to artists over the success of Snow White were reneged on, and Walt Disney’s lawyer Gunther Lessing encouraged a hard line with his employees. On this day, in defiance of federal law, Walt Disney fired animator Art Babbitt, the creator of Goofy, and thirteen other cartoonists for demanding a union. Babbitt had emerged as the union movements’ leader. He has studio security officers escort Babbitt off the lot.

That night in an emergency meeting of the Cartoonists Guild, Art’s assistant on Fantasia, Bill Hurtz, made a motion to strike and it is unanimously accepted. Bill Hurtz will later go on to direct award winning cartoons like UPA’s "Unicorn in the Garden" and the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Picket lines go up next day in cartoon animation’s own version of the Civil War.

Walt Disney had a nervous breakdown over the strike and a federal mediator was sent by Washington to arbitrate. In later years, Uncle Walt blamed the studio’s labor ills on Communists. The studio unionized but hard feelings remained for decades after.

My old man (Ralph Hulett) was involved in the '41 strike. He was against it. He crossed the line and went into work, even though he was a low-level (and low-paid) Disney employee.

The Screen Cartoonists Guild, which ultimately won the Disney strike, repped the Los Angeles animation industry for a decade before Walt and the IATSE teamed up to push it from power and relevance. But this job action had long-term impact in the business. It's the reason that other animation studios sprang up in the forties and fifties. And it's the reason that the majority of L.A. animation workers are still unionized seven decades later. And as Mr. Sito says:

What first motivated me to write Drawing the Line, was seeing how the studio histories skirted around the strike, like everyone was always one big happy family. But the artists themselves spoke of that strike as this traumatic event that was the defining moment of their careers.

Even as elderly men and women, they still wouldn't speak to one another. If it wasn't for the strike, UPA wouldn't exist, Jay Wards may not, no Pogo, no Dennis the Menace, no unique 50's design for Roadrunners and What's Opera Doc. No Charlie Brown Christmas. ...

What I'm aware of is how events from long ago can have positive and negative impacts generations later. Because of what happened in 1941, I had high-quality health insurance as a little kid, and my kids had much the same. Despite the pain and disruptions seven decades ago, thousands of animation employees today enjoy decent retirements. None of these things are trivial.


Steven Hartley said...

Seventy years ago? That long ago. Blimey, time does fly. I completely forgot about the event taking place.

I didn't know that Ralph Hulett was at Disney's at the time, or was he one of the few artists that went back to work after the strike and not laid off?

Anonymous said...

There were more than "a few" that weren't laid off.

Floyd Norman said...

Sadly, Walt Disney took the advice of his attorney, Gunther Lessing who was the Dick Cheney of his day.

Oddly enough, Lessing also represented Pancho Villa and continually bragged about it around the studio.

Anonymous said...

Not all the artists went ON strike.

Steve Hulett said...

I didn't know that Ralph Hulett was at Disney's at the time ...

Ralph H. joined Disney's full-time in 1938. He did air-brush effects before becoming a background artist in 1943.

He sided with management during the strike, as did many. (I believe 40-50% of the staff walked out.) Laid off for several months after the strike, he resumed work at the studio in 1942 and remained an employee until his death in 1974.

He made it clear to me when I was a tyke in knee pants that he sided with management, not the strikers. His reason was that management had given him money and time off to see his sick father in Illinois in 1939, and he was deeply appreciative of that.

The unfulfiilled management promises re "Snow White," which motivated many strikers weren't his issue. He came to the studio after "SW" was completed.

Anonymous said...

That's awesome. Thanks for sharing that. I would have done the same.

Anonymous said...

The strikers were correct. The business reneged on promises, and paid its "non-stars" very poorly.

Walt could have averted the strike by sharing the success of 'Snow White' with them a bit more. He chose not to.

I'm grateful for the strikers. My pensions, health benefits, and pay all benefit from their sacrifices.

Anonymous said...

What exacty were the promises that Walt reniged on?

Steve Hulett said...

Profit sharing was part of it.

The promises were made when the studio was in crunch mode to get "Snow White" out. People were working killer hours and weeks.

Then the picture hit big, becoming the highest grossing film in history to that time. And there was no follow-through by management.

Anyway, that's my understanding. Perhaps President E. Sito will weigh in. He's the expert.

Floyd Norman said...

I've heard stories from friends who worked crunch mode on "Star Wars" and were promised a piece of the action. Only in this case, when "Star Wars" hit big, George Lucas delivered on his promises.

Some sfx people I knew were still cashing checks in the eighties for work done back in 1976. Can you imagine animation producers ever doing that?

Anonymous said...

there were bonuses for Snow White but not as many as anticipated or implied(some felt).
My understanding is that the new Burbank studio was built at a high cost, AND Pinocchio and Fantasia both lost a LOT of money at around the same time. The Disneys were frankly scared of how to keep the plant going.

Also the studio had grown exponentially and so the "family" feeling of working for/at Disney had necessarily changed. Top guys were treated very well in all respects while their assistants were much lower-paid. That personally was one of the things that bothered Art Babbitt who felt the disparity was too unfair.

But Walt had leveraged himself a lot financially and felt he was a good employer-the best in animation. He didn't like being told he was going to have to do this or that by some on his labor staff. And Roy and Walt's counsel really botched the communication. There were huge stressors for everyone, on all sides.

Floyd Norman said...

From my conversations with the Disney old timers each side handled things badly. The strike could have been resolved a lot earlier.

Clearly, both sides share the blame. Resentment continued for decades and only ended once that Disney generation had passed on.

Steve Hulett said...

The strike gets pretty thorough coverage at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. And to Diane Disney Miller's credit, both sides get their say.

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