The Disney animators strike, launched eight decades before Hollywood’s ongoing writers and actors strikes, stunned Walt Disney, stoked his fear of communism and rattled his now-storied company.
It also, in the end, reshaped the union landscape of Hollywood, in ways that endure today.
The problem with ‘Snow White’
The animators’ trouble had its roots in spectacular success.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the studio’s first feature-length animated film, was like nothing audiences had ever seen. Characters “come to life, appearing before your eyes, under the wizard’s work of Disney and his brilliant staff of artists and animators who have devoted three long, painstaking years to the task,” one critic marveled in the Los Angeles Daily News.
Walt Disney Productions had exploded into a large company, but it still was run then like an informal, haphazard family business: Salaries ranged from less than $20 per week to hundreds of dollars for top earners, with bonuses doled out unpredictably. Rather than pay out to his employees after “Snow White,” however, Disney decided to invest in a lavish new corporate complex in Burbank, Calif.
“When he started his studio in 1923, it was just a handful of friends from Kansas City and a storefront. But now it’s like 1,200 employees, people are clocking in and out, and a lot of people he didn’t even have contact with,” said Tom Sito, author of “Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson.”
Disney workers’ discontent was growing, and so were their expectations. New labor rights, championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had emerged from the hardships of the Great Depression. Unions had swelled following the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which offered new protections for collective bargaining. And employees of Fleischer Studios, home to Betty Boop and Popeye, successfully struck in 1937, emboldening the Screen Cartoonists Guild.
By 1940, Disney was back in a financial pinch. World War II cut into overseas markets, reducing revenue by almost half. “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” fell short of “Snow White’s” earnings. Layoffs made those who remained at their easels jittery.
Walt Disney, believing fiercely in the creativity and loyalty of his studio, didn’t realize what was brewing. When “all this dissension crept into the organization, I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. I had my hands full trying to get out of the mess that I had got into because of the collapse of the world market,” he later testified.
Babbitt was in the company’s upper salary echelon, having cemented his reputation with his work on “Snow White” and the characters of Donald Duck and Goofy. But while Babbitt initially was skeptical of Hollywood’s union movement — and particularly organized crime’s encroachment into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — he came to believe Disney was maneuvering to avoid giving employees real bargaining power.
“He just kind of gets disenchanted with the management of the studio,” said Jake S. Friedman, author of “The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age.”
In late 1940, Babbitt began enthusiastically recruiting colleagues to the Screen Cartoonists Guild, teaming up with the combative labor leader Herbert K. Sorrell, a former boxer. Babbitt’s knowledge of the company’s inner machinations made him a formidable opponent, and his efforts incensed Walt Disney and Disney’s longtime counsel, Gunther Lessing. The chasm between Disney and his employees swelled.
In February 1941, Disney gathered his workers in the studio’s auditorium and railed against what he saw as an issue of loyalty and work ethic, invoking his days skipping meals and sleeping in the office in pursuit of his vision. “Too many people are inclined to self-pity,” he told them. “If you’re not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.”
Disney intended the speech as a rallying cry, but it backfired: More animators followed Babbitt to the guild.
Babbitt and Disney ran into each other in the hallway in early May, and Disney told his ace animator, “If you don’t stop organizing my employees, I’m going to throw you right the hell out of the front gate,” as Babbitt later testified. On May 27, Disney fired Babbitt, a move the National Labor Relations Board would deem “an act of reprisal.”
Babbitt’s dismissal stoked the embers of company resentment, forcing more neutral employees to make a stark choice regarding the imminent strike. The workforce split almost evenly.
“It became a progressively polarized situation, because everyone became their own echo chamber. Walt began vilifying the strikers; the strikers began vilifying Walt. People were kind of caricaturing or smearing the other,” Friedman said.
Despite the warning signs, “the first day [Disney] drove to the studio and there was a picket line, he was in shock,” Sito said.
He latched on to a timely scapegoat for the painful situation: communism.
Disney’s workplace spirit ‘destroyed’
Many in the 1940s and the years that followed used the communist label cynically do discredit opponents, but Disney’s suspicion was adamant. His father, from whom he had distanced himself, had been an avowed socialist, and Disney held that communism was the only plausible explanation for the strike — making it unpatriotic to back down. Disney later told the House Un-American Activities Committee that communists “have been hiding behind this labor set-up,” naming Sorrell among them.
“He found a communist under every bush,” Babbitt complained.
A month into the animators’ strike, Lessing, Walt and his brother Roy refused to recognize the guild. Instead of negotiations, the two sides traded sharp insults, each arguing that their contingent was larger than the other and that the other was operating in bad faith.
“Serious aspects of the strike leave an observer in a state of utter confusion because of the conflicting claims of each side,” the New York Times wrote in late June 1941.
As the picketers marched on, bad publicity for Disney’s company mounted, as did pressure from its creditors. In late July, the government stepped in, and in federal arbitration, the studio agreed to a series of demands, including pay increases, backpay, sick leave — and Babbitt’s return.
“Once the strike won and they were allowed to have a union — an independent union — then it made Hollywood pretty much wall-to-wall union town,” Friedman said.
The cash-strapped Disney studio shut down for two weeks in late August, during a battle with the newly recognized guild about fresh layoffs. Walt Disney escaped the ordeal, embarking on a government-sponsored South American tour. Three months later, the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the country directly into World War II, and government contracts for wartime propaganda helped keep the studio afloat.
But the spirit of the company had changed. The returning strikers “were all kind of treated like pariahs,” Friedman said. People were leery of socializing with those against whom Disney had a grudge — most of all Babbitt, who left the studio for good in 1947.
“One thing [that] has been destroyed,” the Times wrote, is “the camaraderie which for years distinguished the Disney plant from other Hollywood film factories.”
That shift cut deep for Walt Disney.
“Two periods in my father’s life were very, very tragic,” daughter Diane Disney Miller recalled in a 2009 documentary about his time in South America. “One was the death of his mother, and then the other was the strike.”
POST AUTHOR: Francine Uenuma