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Artist RightsDisney

On This Day 75 Years Ago, Disney Animation Changed Forever: The Disney Artists’ Strike of 1941

The Disney brand is in large part rooted in nostalgia, and the company loves to celebrate historical anniversaries and milestones. Every event — big or small — is acknowledged through the company’s corporate streams, whether it’s the 60th anniversary of Walt Disney Records or the 110th birthday of Mickey Mouse voice Jimmy Macdonald.

But today is the 75th anniversary of one of the most important events in the Walt Disney Company’s history and you will not hear a peep out of the company. Unlike most anniversaries, the outcome of this event still impacts the daily lives of thousands of animators and ensures the existence and continued growth of the entire American animation industry.

The event: on May 29, 1941, 334 employees of the Disney animation studio walked out on strike (303 employees remained on the inside). The events that led up to the strike are too numerous to recount here, but suffice to say, tensions had been building at the studio since the runaway success of the studio’s first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and employees of the studio had a litany of grievances from low wages and salary cuts to arbitrary layoffs, arcane bonus distribution systems, and oppressively long hours (including mandatory work on Saturdays).

The strikers vowed to stay on the picket lines until Walt Disney recognized their union. With neither side willing to give in, the event lasted into the fall, turning uglier and lasting longer than either side had ever imagined. In the end, the workers won, and neither the Disney company nor the animation industry would ever be the same again.

“It was the Civil War of Animation,” said Tom Sito, former president of The Animation Guild Local 839, and a Disney animator/story artist in the 1980s and ’90s. “The strike paved the way for Hollywood animators to earn pensions, medical insurance and the highest standard of living in the animation world.” (Sito has written about the strike extensively in his book, Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson.)

The Disney strike was not the first animation strike. In 1937, East Coast artists at Fleischer Studios had picketed. (In fact, much of the country had been striking since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a foundational statute of workers’ rights that gave employees the right to form trade unions and negotiate collectively.) But the Disney strike was different because then, as now, Disney was the most prestigious name in American animation.

If Disney was held to a higher standard, other industry players would be compelled to follow its lead. And so, on May 29, 1941, the journey to improving the working conditions of animation craftspeople took one of its most significant steps forward.

Disney Strike

The union is not a panacea for all of the animation industry’s labor ills. It is also not the strongest union in Hollywood, not by a long shot. But to this day, it remains the best option for artists who want to earn pensions and medical insurance, and ensure that they are treated with basic dignity and fairness by their employer. Union shops in Los Angeles understand that they can’t take advantage of their employees, which is why some animation studios, like Titmouse, try to skirt the system by launching satellite studios in other parts of the United States where they can pay employees less than a living wage.

Animator Art Babbitt, one of the strike leaders, leads a picket at the premiere of "The Reluctant Dragon."
Animator Art Babbitt, one of the strike leaders, leads a picket at the premiere of “The Reluctant Dragon.”

While a union seems like a no-brainer for keeping employees happy and content, they are still resisted by people in positions of power, whether that person be the co-creator of Rick and Morty or Ed Catmull, the current president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Catmull is staunchly anti-union, and has fought tooth-and-nail to keep the company he co-founded, Pixar, a union-free shop. As a result, even though Pixar is now owned by Disney, and even though Pixar has been the most financially successful animation studio in America for the last twenty years, the average starting wage for animators at the studio remains below unionized feature animation workers.

It also shouldn’t be a surprise that Catmull has emerged as the mastermind behind a wage-fixing scheme that has rocked the feature animation world over the past year, with evidence emerging that Catmull has worked for decades to prevent the industry’s employees from advancing their careers or being paid what they were truly worth.

Seventy-five years after the start of the Disney strike, as we honor the sacrifices of the brave women and men who improved workplace conditions for themselves and tens of thousands of artists who followed them, we must recognize that there is still plenty of work to do and that improving the industry’s welfare is a shared responsibility passed from one generation to the next. As for the Disney Company itself, let’s just say the strike worked out pretty well for them, too: the company today is worth $163 billion, making it the most valuable entertainment conglomerate currently in the world.

Below: a gallery of picket-line photos and ephemera from the 1941 strike, many of which come from the collections of Bob Cowan, Michael Barrier, and Jake Friedman:

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  • The_Purple_People_Eater

    I’m more interested in the art on those picket signs. Beautiful stuff.

    • Those are an art in themselves! Kinda dig that one of the Big Bad Wolf dolled up like an artist! It’s a shame if none of those signs exist anymore, at least we got some photos to see.

  • Mark Mayerson

    It looks like actor John Garfield in the bottom photo at right. As he was on the political left, it’s a definite possibility.

    • AmidAmidi

      Yea, sure looks like him. A discussion about that photo here also seems to believe that Garfield dropped by to show his support.

    • im2bizzy

      What a brilliant actor who died way too early. I believe this is the only candid shot I’ve ever seen of him.

  • Landon Kemp

    It makes me wonder if the industry could use another strike like this.

    • Fredster

      wouldn’t leave any impact considering how major studios have a steady flow of college grads eager to work for close to nothing

      • Hey Now

        You mean college grads who would be making Union minimums once hired by a union shop? Ummm….

        And yes, we absolutely could use another strike. Artist conditions are not good, yet animation has never made bigger box office.

        • Gezzer50

          Here’s the thing, while I’m very pro union and thank God I have a union job in an unrelated field. Most of the public in general seem to see unions as a bad thing instead of the good thing they are, and don’t support them like they used to.

          Hell even Union members don’t support union shops like they should. I work in a Supermarket and I get very angry over the many longtime members that shop at Wally world while condemning our employer for not having a more attractive starting package for new hires. Their excuse is our prices are higher. Well of course they are, that’s how we long timers get our wages and benefits paid for.

          I’m afraid between the short memories of many people forgetting all the atrocities that happened before the union movement gained traction and conservative “news” outlets like Fox, most strikes are seen as the entitled workers who aren’t grateful for just having a job, making problems for hard working employers instead of workers standing up for themselves.

          The sad fact is that too many people are idiots, and don’t understand that workers need to stand together or we’ll lose all the hard one benefits we currently have. And it’s going to take a lot more erosion of workers rights before more of them start to wake up to the fact that we let our guard down.

  • In my proud opinion, the 1979 and 1982 strikes more than deserve books,
    documentaries, or something. Future generations must learn the full histories of these strikes,

    • Yep, those are very important ones if they want to know the outcome of those.

  • Elsi Pote

    The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    Now you have to grant the artists some accolades because of the quality of those signs and props.

    Nothing catches more your eye than an appealing design.

  • Tikkigirls

    Union or not union what hurts workers the most is that some self proclaimed government takes 25% to 33% of what a worker makes.When I don’t like my working conditions I work harder to be able to apply to better jobs or quit.

    • RCooke

      “self proclaimed government?” As in “We The People?” If I were only so young to know as much as you. If you’re not happy with the relatively low tax rates in the U.S.(compared to many countries), I hear there are some empty homes in Northern Syria you could squat in.

      If corporations and tax cheats would pay their fair share, we’d be better off, and I sure vote to shift my dollars toward things I think are important–infrastructure, education, job creation.

      And if you don’t like you’re working conditions and apply to get a better job—exactly how can that work if the jobs, perceived or real qualifications, and wages/salary are rigged by the likes of ed catmull?

      • Tikkigirls

        You must be 250 years old and also one of the original signers of rhe constitution. We the people? less than 15% of the total population voted in 1787 for the constitution. You must be very naive or have been indoctrinated with public education or both to believe that you are the government. Just because a slave gets to choose his masters it does not make him less slave. The public sector has totally stagnated education. Healthcare and transportation. So. No i am not going anywhere. I am not the one advocaiting for a system based in violence and coercion and 33% slavery. Before 1913 there was no income taxes and there were roads and public infrastructure.

        • KW

          Your argument about looking for a better job if you don’t like the conditions at your current one is more about ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away on its own rather than solving it. Maybe thats a sound strategy for something like a retail job where you dont plan to stay a long time, but when its a job you’ve made a career out of things are different.
          Starting a new line of work isn’t always a practical option, whats a worker supposed to do when every job in town (or other states) has poor working conditions? Should the whole animation industry have just up and quit because conditions are poor and they shouldn’t have tried to fix it? Would you rather there was no American animation industry? Because by your logic instead of striking and trying to fix the issue, everyone under poor working conditions (which was pretty much every studio in america at the time) should have quit and found different jobs.

          Also there were roads and infrastructure before 1913 but their conditions were no where near as good as they are now and there wasn’t an Interstate Freeway System all of which was funded by taxes.

          • Eddie

            Ah, yes the classic who will build the roads argument. Read up in some Rothbard, Mises and Hobbes. Tom Woods has some stuff on this to. Unionizing is just fine as long as it’s a private union. Have the Government and create a Public Sector Union and look what happened to Detroit. Look at what Unions are doing in California. Unions, Special interests groups buddying up with politicians asking favors, colluding. Without the Government telling us how to build roads I suppose we can not figure it out and are simply dumb. There are so many creative ways to solve problems within the market without a gun pointed to your head, let alone another law created as if there are not enough as it is.

  • CrystalClearTruth

    If they tried that today, they’d all be sued for copyright infringement.

    • alexis

      I was thinking the same thing haha times have changed indeed

  • Elizabeth Cline

    The sad thing is that the unions today don’t do anything for the employees now anyway and the union reps are all hired from within the Disney corp.

    • RCooke

      Hogwash. You’re woefully ill informed. Unions are only as strong as their memberships. The WGA, the DGA, SAG/AFTRA, the ADG–all very strong unions. The animation union provides minimum rates and pension and health, and residuals. They’d be even stronger if members participated in general the way other unions do. The unions do LOTS for the employees.Stop complaining and show up.

  • Taco

    https://www.youtube.com/v/555E9nPbs_U You can’t get me I’m part of the Union (wanna bet)

    https://www.youtube.com/v/RtiaReNsHOo (“UMG Restricted from Playback on certain sites”)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbLGG5UGEKw (all the reasons to remind you to Vote anything other than Liberal)

  • James Madison

    It would be great to hear more about the strike and I would also like to hear more about the creative picket signs.

  • Tyler Jewell

    I think Pinto Colvig went back to Disney in May 25, 1941. Pinto told the Disney employees to stop and go home and he’s taking over to Walt Disney’s office. And now, he’s going into Pluto’s voice in 1941.

    • Sara Bersani

      A very appropriate role for him, I’d say

  • rnigma

    The gun-toting gangster is supposed to be Willie Bioff, formerly of the Capone gang, who helped IATSE organize in Hollywood.

  • Clint Baker

    It’d be nice to get a more unbiased historical account rather than just more of the same polemic editorial on this event. I was disappointed in the film, for this reason. I’d rather explore the history – going into the accounting records and cost of living at the time would be more interesting than just beating the same “Walt was a villain” or “Walt was a saint” drum.

  • TKeen

    Having worked in animation in Canada (no union) and the UK (union), I can say that having unions is a definite plus.

    Also, if actors can unionize, anyone can.

    • mike112769

      Not if you want to keep your job in America. America has found itself in pretty much the same exact shape as we were when the robber barons were around. According to History, we will soon have another Great Depression. Another world war is doubtful, but the odds of one occurring are increasing daily. People never seem to learn. Peace.

  • JohnTomato

    Everyone looks so slim & trim.

    • mike112769

      They were not eating sugar filled, processed crap like that sold to us.

  • yosh kite

    This was capitalism working, unionization is a part of capitalism. The people felt their time was in greater demand than what they were being paid for, they went on strike, if their labor was not worth it Disney would have hired others in their place. They were in demand so they got paid more.

  • Ry

    Yay capitalism.

  • Baccar Wozat

    IIRC, Termite Terrace (aka Warner Bros. Animation) also walked out in sympathy. Pics can be found in Chuck Jones’ book, “Chuck Amuck”.

  • young-artist

    how would one go about starting a union? Today we seem to face many of the same problems as the animators of that time, but fixing it is a scary endeavor. There were rumors of a union forming last year and then everyone who participated getting layed off. I guess safety is in numbers, but even mentioning the word union in some companies can be cause to be the next person ending up on a blacklist.

  • im2bizzy

    Disney, much as I admire his talent and vision, treated his animators like chattel. He was so disrespectful throughout their strike. For all my life I held him up as a kind of extraterrestrial being. No more. Since I learned of his way of doing business, I lost a lot of respect. The artists, on the other hand, who worked so diligently at mind-numbing work, drawing, coloring, etc. to make him and his studio what it was, were expendable to him. Shameful;.