Rise of the Labor Movement in Animation
Noell Wolfgram Evans
early days of the animation business could be compared to the
American Wild West. People carved out an industry with a pioneering
spirit, any hardships that were felt were expected and sometimes
even worn as a badge of honor. But as the industry discovered
its self, things started to settle in and those frontier instincts
began to be taken over by more stable thoughts and actions. Many
of the men who had led this initial charge though (like Walt Disney
and Max Fleischer) retained much of their early attitudes even
as their businesses grew. Although they added staff and support
and upped their production rate, they often continued to run their
studios like it was still four people working in a garage. As
the companies grew, the employees began to feel a sense of security
and success (both personally and professionally) and wanted to
capitalize on that. It's not that they felt they were now entitled
to just work a few hours a day, rather they began to believe that
the 'rules' and salaries they were working under were due to be
updated. They wanted their working environments to be fair, their
pay to be of an equal caliber and to be recognized publicly for
their work. (These were just a few of a number of issues facing
animation employees at this time.) The employers though were often
blinded by doing whatever it took to see that the company survived
and prospered. They believed that the employees would hold these
same desires and while they often did, the convictions often weren't
strong enough to warrant the 'sacrifices' that were being asked
for. As this difference in philosophy grew, the conditions in
the studios changed as well.
As the animation
studios were still finding their feet, and often fighting for
the sustenance (money) to stay standing, they were forced to make
some changes in the production of their films. No one can fault
an employer for trying to make their workplace as efficient as
possible, but when a system is set up where employees have to
ask permission to use the restroom and are then held accountable
if they've been gone longer than expected (it's a scene that's
been told by a number of animators in a number of studios) then
things have perhaps taken a turn.
It was under
these conditions that labor unions found the animation industry
in the 1930's. The unions seized on the opportunity to offer animation
employees a way to better working conditions. The workers of the
Iwerks Studio in 1931 had made some attempts at organizing but
nothing strong materialized. At the Van Buren studio in 1935,
(Ms.) Sadie Bodin was fired for trying to organize her fellow
employees. The next day she parked herself in front of the studio
and became the first person to picket an animation studio. The
members of these early movements were passionate but the backing
for them just wasn't there. Labor needed a bigger cause in a larger
studio to make its move into animation.
The first strong labor action in animation came at the Fleischer
Studio. In the late 1930's the studio, which was located in upper
New York State, had a stark 'job shop' atmosphere. Their concern
was producing footage of film; if they couldn't beat Disney in
quality, they were determined to take him in quantity. The employees
were worked hard for little benefits under an uneven pay structure.
In an effort to gain a better working environment they began exploring
the idea of joining the union, which was at this time was the
Commercial Artists and Designers Union (CADU). The Fleischer brothers
(Max and Dave) were very anti-union, concerned about what the
worker's demands would do to their company. They were also particularly
hurt by their employees actions because many of their employees
had been with them since the studio started; the brothers saw
them as family and couldn't understand why the employees had taken
these 'family problems' to a third party. On the flip side, the
employees couldn't understand why the brothers, whom they had
worked hard for and been loyal to, would not give them more respect
(through compensation and the working atmosphere).
By 1937 tensions
on both sides were running high. In March of that year Max Fleischer
fired two employees who just also happened to be union activists.
(This was not an uncommon activity in business at the time. It
was so common in fact that it forced the passage of The Wagner
Act which made it illegal to fire someone for trying to organize
a union.) The firings only infuriated the situation more. In an
attempt to bring the situation to a close, the CADU seized the
tension and approached the Fleischers and asked to be recognized
as the union of the employees. The Fleischers shot back by firing
13 union member employees. The workers had had enough and on May
7, 1937 they went on strike.
was important not just for the Fleischers business, but for the
business of animation. If the union could pull off a successful
strike, it would make recruiting and organizing other studios
that much easier. With this pressure for success, the union called
in help from all sides. The strike became a truly integrated one
as people from across related fields came in to help. The musicians
union refused to do soundtracks for the studio while union projectionists
across the country refused to run what Fleischer films they had.
After five months of picketing, intense union pressure and pressure
from Paramount (the Fleischers film distributor), the Fleischers
recognized the union and their demands.
Signs on the Fleischer picket lines:
make millions laugh, but the real joke is my salary.
'We can't get much spinach on salaries as low as $15.00 a week.'
In 1938, the Screen Cartoonists' Guild was formed. The Guild made
some generally progressive headway but didn't really reach any
substantial amount of power until 1941. This was the year that
saw the employees of MGM, Walter Lantz Studios and Screen Gems
all become members. Over at the Warner Brothers studio, animation
head Leon Schlesinger was very nervous about the effects unionization
would have on his staff. In an effort to ward off any potential
union/strike activities, Schlesinger locked several guild employees
out. Immediately, Schlesinger began to feel serious pressures
and so six days later, he ended the lock-out and signed a contract
with the Guild.
The Walt Disney Studios
The Disney Studios had always been the benchmark to which other
animators held their work. The style, training, technique and
knowledge base were the envy of the industry. To reach the realism
that their films often achieved, the Disney artists were often
forced to work long hours under less than ideal conditions and
in an unequal pay structure. On top of this, they never received
any public recognition for their work. Disney believed that people
didn't need nor want to know who was creating Mickey Mouse, all
that was important to them was that Mickey was there. Of course
there was one name that appeared before every film in a creditory
position: Walt Disney's.
Cartoonists' Guild began to talk to the employees about organizing
together to address these issues. Some employees did sign with
the Guild while others took their issues directly to Disney. Disney
felt he could give his employees some comfort while countering
the Guild's activities by forming a union of his own. He allowed
the employees to establish the Federation of Screen Cartoonists,
an in-house (company sponsored) union which, in Disney's benefit,
was unaffiliated with any other labor organization. Of the 602
employees at Disney, 568 of them joined the Federation. These
members elected senior animator Art Babbitt as President. Babbitt
was a highly paid and well-respected animator, the Queen in 'Snow
White' and the mushrooms in 'Fantasia' are just two of his creations.
He is, perhaps more popularly, responsible for the evolution of
Goofy. Babbitt was a veteran around the studio and during his
stay came to know Walt personally, often spending time with him
socially. Babbitt was a Disney man through and through, but he
also lived by the idea of 'Doing the Right Thing'. He was fair,
just and equal in the way he lived and took his position seriously.
Unfortunately Disney never took the Federation seriously, he continued
to use it as a way to keep the employees calm while blocking out
a national union. The Federation though continued to correlate
the issues of the employees.
One of the
chief complaints centered on pay. The compensation at this time
in the studio was widely in disparagement, employees started at
indiscriminately different salary amounts and the differences
between what two animators could make in a week could be 200%
or more. To make matters worse in 1940 the company stopped handing
out raises and in some cases had to cut salaries. There was no
structure in place for how this worked either, Disney would figuratively
walk through the office, bestowing paycuts on those he felt were
willing to sacrifice for their art. There was also the issue of
residuals. Disney had promised to share the profits of Snow
White and the 7 Dwarfs with his employees. Although the film
was profitable, the pay-share was a promise that never came to
be. To top it all off, the employees discussed these issues in
a brand new, state of the art studio. It should be noted that,
at this time in the studio's history, its finances were on shaky
ground, ground that appeared to be getting shakier with the war
raging on in Europe. This threat of a shrinking distribution market
caused Disney's advisors to stress financial prudence more than
ever. Still the employees did have a number of valid issues which
could have been addressed.
saw these issues, he studied them and considered their causes
and effects and he slowly began to see that there would be a number
of benefits to belong to an independent, outside union. He felt
so strongly in this that he quit his position in the Federation
and joined the Guild, encouraging others to do the same. It was
the gentle push that they needed as employees began signing up
stunned. He, like the Fleischers, was deeply hurt that his employees
would take their 'family problems' to a Union. He felt specifically
betrayed by Art Babbitt, a man who he had 'built up' and trusted
and who now had seemingly turned against him. Conversely Babbitt
felt betrayed that Disney, a man whom he considered a mentor and
a friend was treating his employees this way.
of these labor issues were building, Disney (the company), continued
to find its self in a weak economic position. So much so in fact
that in May of 1941 the studio started to layoff employees. The
Guild feeling that perhaps all was not what it seemed, immediately
called a meeting where they discussed the possibility of a strike
against Disney. The very next day, Disney outright fired a small
group of employees. Among them was Art Babbitt. The firing of
Babbitt was the match on the straw as the very next day, May 28,
300 Disney employees went on strike.
At the beginning
the strike had a carnival like atmosphere to it. Employees from
other animation studios came by and spent time on the lines and
union chefs from nearby restaurants would come out to cook meals.
on the Disney picket lines:
we mice or men'
'There are no strings on me' (with a picture of Pinocchio)
time went forward though, the strikers grew more serious. In the
Summer of 1941 Disney opened The Reluctant Dragon. It featured
a mixture of live action and animation. The live action scenes
featured a 'Day in the Life
' of the Disney Studios. That
it portrayed a happy and lively studio only angered the strikers
who picketed outside a completely different environment. In response,
the strikers grew to 1,200 members (many from other unions) and
united they marched on the Disney gates. They picketed the films
premiere, forcing attention to their cause.
the strike had a different tone. The strikers grew angrier and
Disney more defiant. President Roosevelt sent in a federal mediator
to try and get both sides together but the result was a stalemate.
Disney stayed strongly defiant. It didn't help that he had to
drive to work every morning right through the picket lines. He
would get so incensed by the words of the strikers (often times
Art Babbitt himself) that he was known to stop his car and open
up a shouting match. The toll the strike was taking had started
nearly four months, Disney relented and the strike was ended.
The strikers returned to work triumphantly, but in a very different
and divided work environment (as not every employee had joined
the picket lines). The strikers achieved many goals including
one unintended one: changing the Disney culture. Disney became
more distant, suspicious and vengeful. The results of the strike
can be correlated to Disney's later appearance before the House
Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting of a number
of industry workers. Not to mention the stark changes in the company
culture, which in turn affected other animation houses. With these
results, the question must be posed that although the union won
the battle, what was the true cost?
The Disney Strike, although perhaps the most famous of labors'
early movements in animation, was not the last. The unions continued
to work organizing and picketing for employees rights. Over the
years as the business ebbed and flowed, as animation moved from
a primarily theatrical attraction to the television set (and beyond)
unions continued their fights. The issues switched from bathroom
breaks and drawing quotas to the farming out of animation to overseas
studios and episode residuals. Because of this, Unions remain
an integral part of the business of animation. The reasons may
change but the cause stays the same: equality and fairness for
all animation artists.
here to view or participate in an Animation Labor Union
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife, daughter, and newborn son.
Access a Printable
Version of this Feature.
> Return to
Features Main Page.
> Return to Digital
Media FX Front Page.