“It’s Not Cricket to Pass a Picket”– The Disney Strike 70 Years Later

Disney Strike Are We Mice or MenMay 28th marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Disney strike by members of the Screen Cartoon Guild (later the Screen Cartoonist Guild). The nine-week walkout, precipitated by the firing of Art Babbitt, the head of the Guild’s Disney’s unit, is a legendary event whose full story has yet to be told. Though I may someday finish my history of the beginnings of the union movement in American animation, I’m obviously not going to do it here. Rather, I thought I would say a few words about the strike’s place in the history of the labor movement within the film industry and a bit about how it affected animation itself.

Disney Unit of Screen Cartoon Guild On the Line cartoon 5 June 1941

The strike was, in a sense, was the closing event of the Hollywood labor wars of the 1930s and seemed to end the Chicago mob’s control over The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the industry’s largest union. Specifically, the Disney strike was the last stand for the mob’s man in Hollywood, Willie Bioff, who tried to prevent being sent to prison by (unsuccessfully) trying to settle the strike on Disney’s behalf.

The unions which supported the strike, under the leadership of Herb Sorrell, the charismatic leader of the studio local of the Painters and Paperhangers Union (under whose aegis the Guild operated) subsequently formed the Conference of Studio Unions. The Conference, after the war, became involved in a series of strikes, including the Battle of Warner Bros. (which I wrote about here), which led to the blacklist, the ouster of the Guild from the major studios and the rise of Ronald Reagan.

disney strike wolf detail

As for animation industry, the strike marked the end of Disney’s Golden Age. And like the Fleischer strike four years earlier, it caused an almost indelible  rift between strikers and nonstrikers. It also led to a heated discussion, especially among strikers and Guild members, about the artistic direction animation was going. This discussion laid the groundwork for the formation of UPA, the studio which changed the face of animation in the 1940s and 1950s.

Images: The drawing on the top is from a mimeographed “Strike Summary” published three weeks into the walkout. The second is from the June 5th issue of On the Line, the daily mimeographed newsletter the Guild’s Disney Unit issued during the strike. Both were copied from originals in the Urban Archives Center of California State University, Northridge’s Oviatt Library. The last image is the last panel of a Guild comic strip version of Three Little Pigs published in a newspaper during the strike which I have seemed to have gotten from a posting at Shaneglines.net.

P.S.: July 7th, 2011.The cartoon from the Disney strike newsletter, On the Line, was probably done by Dan Noonan, a junior animator who did story sketch work on the side; Noonan’s struggles to get by when he first came to Disney helped the Guild’s organizing drive. The newsletter itself was edited by Phil Eastman, best known today as children’s book author P.D. Eastman.

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

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