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The Rise of the Labor Movement in Animation
by Noell Wolfgram Evans

The 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.

Fleischer Studios
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.

This 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:

'I 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.'

The Rise
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.

The Screen 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.

Art Babbitt 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 en masse.

Disney was 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.

While all 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.

Signs on the Disney picket lines:

'Are we mice or men'
'There are no strings on me' (with a picture of Pinocchio)

As 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.

After this 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 to show.

Finally after 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.


Click here to view or participate in an Animation Labor Union forum discussion.

Noell Wolfgram 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.

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