By Martin Smith | 10 July 2014
Today – Thursday 10 July 2014 – more than 1.5 million public sector workers are on strike. They are striking against austerity and are saying “enough is enough”.
Well here is another group who said “enough is enough” – their names were Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Snow White and Donald. This is the story of the 1941 Disney Studios strike. Or as it is known in the animation industry – “The Strike”.
In the mid-1930s Walt Disney Studios employed fewer than 200 workers. They produced cartoon shorts – their iconic character was Mickey Mouse.
But that would all change in 1937 when the company released its first full-length animated feature film – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adjusted for inflation it is one of the ten most popular box office films in US film history.
What followed was one of two golden eras for the corporation, when it released The Adventures of Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). In the wake of Snow White, Disney Studios expanded from 200 employees to 1,100 by 1940 and moved to a state-of-the-art studio in Burbank, California.
Many regard Disney as one of the greatest innovators of American culture.
But this massive upheaval in production scales brought to the surface real tensions and contradictions within the company.
The move and the expansion into full-length feature film production saw the company changed from being a “family” run business into what only can be described as a “Fordist” animation production line.
Workers suffered low and arbitrary rates of pay, long hours and no overtime pay. More and more, these skilled workers’ jobs mirrored their counterparts in the car, white goods and steel plants. Animator Willis Pye recalled:
You might be sitting next to a guy doing the same thing as you and you might be getting $20 a week more or less than him.
And Walt Disney felt that men and women should not work together and the women who worked in the lowest ranks as inkers and painters worked in a separate building and were on subsistence wages.
Another issue that caused disquiet among the workforce was the fact that cartoonists did not receive credits for their work.
In 1940 Walt Disney tried to force the workers to take a wage cut. The Screen Cartoonist Guild (SCG) began a recruitment and union recognition drive at Burbank Studios.
The refusal of Walt Disney to recognise the union and the lay off of 24 cartoonists, almost all of them members of the SCG, prompted a walkout which began on 29 May 1941.
The strike split the workforce: about 500 of the 1,000 cartoonists struck. The strike was bitter and lasted nine weeks.
Mass pickets, 300-strong, were held outside the plant. The strikers made their own picket signs animated with the characters they drew. One with the picture of Pluto on it said, “I’ve got a bone to pick with Walt” and “Pluto is not a scab”. Another, with Mickey Mouse wearing an AFL union badge and holding a placard said, “Disney unfair”. Strikers also produced weekly cartoon strips for left wing periodicals PM and Friday. Cinemas showing Disney features were picketed.
Film processing workers refused to process Disney films, and donations were sent to the strikers from car, dock and aviation workers.
Bussed in under police escort, the scabs tried to undermine the strikers’ morale. The clowns who sing “We’re gonna Hit the Big Boss for a rise” (see video, below) were malicious caricatures of striking Disney Studio.
But the Disney Corporation was reeling from the bad publicity and loss of revenue. After nine weeks there was a negotiated settlement. The strikers returned to work on 21 September 1941.
Despite another attempt to break the union shortly after the return to work, the strikers won a big victory. The deal brought about the equalisation of wages in the workforce: many workers saw their wages double. And the union won the reinstatement of all 24 workers laid off before the strike and won union recognition for the SCG.
The union’s victory left Walt Disney himself a bitter man. He was the founding member and vice president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and gave evidence against communists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
The moral of this story is Pluto never scabbed – and nor should you.
Marc Eliot – Walt Disney – Hollywood’s Dark Prince
Gerald Horne – Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930 – 1950
Mike Nielson & Gene Mailes – Hollywood’s other Blacklist
Robert Field – The Art of Walt Disney