Disney Hasn’t Found Itself in This Much Trouble Since 1941

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Yves here. The warm and fuzzy veneer of Disney is only celluloid deep. The modern Disney, rescued by Michael Eisner in a fabulously lucrative LBO and next run by Bob Iger, has never been a nice bunch. The media business is a shark tank but even so Disney has been particularly sharp elbowed and selfish. Ask the residents of Anaheim, or its theme park workers, or people who brought homes in Celebration, Florida, for some of many examples. But it’s indicative of our class stratified times, where abuse of the help, be they Amazon workers, Uber drivers, or Starbucks baristas, is normalized, so (comparatively), what can Disney workers have to complain about? Stories like Thousands sue Disneyland over low pay in the Independent in 2021 and Disney Is a ”Nightmare to Work For,” Long-Time Cast Members Say in Inside the Magic in 2022 get no traction.

So I have to confess to some schaudenfreude.

By Thomas Doherty. Professor of American Studies, Brandeis University. Originally published at The Conversation

The family-friendly, controversy-averse Walt Disney Co. has walked into the buzz saw of the American culture wars, version 2022.

In April, officials at Disney objected to a Florida law prohibiting instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responded by signing a bill revoking Disney’s self-governing status, a unique arrangement in which the company operated like an independent fiefdom within the state.

Traditionally, the custodians of one of Hollywood’s most reliable cash machines have been careful to sidestep political minefields that might remind customers of a realm outside the Magic Kingdom. Better to wallow with Scrooge McDuck in the Money Bin than be caught in the crosshairs of Fox News chyrons.

Only once before has the Disney brand gotten so entangled in a public relations briar patch – in 1941, when the original iteration of the company was confronted by an internal revolt that pitted the founding visionary against his pen-and-ink scriveners.

The characters in the showdown were as colorful as any drawn on the studio’s animation cels: union activists, gangsters, communists and anti-communists, and, not least, Walt Disney himself, who, dropping his avuncular persona, played a long game of political hardball and slow-burn payback.

Workers Grumble as Disney’s Star Soars

Even then, Walt Disney inspired a special kind of awe around Hollywood.

Billy Wilkerson, editor of The Hollywood Reporter, declared Disney “the only real genius in this business” in the Dec. 17, 1937, issue of the periodical.

Disney was hailed as the father of the first sound cartoon, “Steamboat Willie” (1928); the first Technicolor cartoon, “Flowers and Trees” (1932); and the first feature-length cartoon, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

“Snow White” marked the beginning of the extraordinary creative streak – “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” in 1940, “Dumbo” the following year and 1942’s “Bambi” – on which the Disney mythos would be built forever.

In 1940, Disney plowed the profits from “Snow White” into a state-of-the-art animation studio in Burbank, California, where the comfort of his workers, so he said, was a high priority.

“One of Walt Disney’s greatest wishes has always been that his employees could work in ideal surroundings,” read an advertisement in the Oct. 10, 1940, issue of The Hollywood Reporter. “The dean of animated cartoons realizes that a happy personnel turns out the best work.”

But even by the standards of exploitative Hollywood shop floors, Disney animators were overworked and underpaid. Forced to hunch over a drawing board for 10 hours a day, they had no desire to whistle while they worked. Instead, they wanted a strong union to negotiate on their behalf. Disney didn’t want any of it.

The animators opted to be represented by the confrontational Screen Cartoonists Guild rather than the pro-management “company union,” the American Society of Screen Cartoonists.

“Disney cartoonists make less than house painters,” charged the guild. “The girls are the lowest paid in the entire cartoon field. They earn from $16 to $20 a week, with very few earning as high as $22.50.” The guild demanded a 40-hour, five-day work week, severance pay, paid vacation and a minimum wage scale ranging from $18 a week for apprentices to $250 for cartoon directors.

To go nose to nose with Disney in the negotiations, the Screen Cartoonists Guild chose Herbert Sorrell of the Motion Picture Painters, Local 644, a longtime thorn in the side of studio management.

Sorrell was a broad-shouldered union man of the old-school variety. A former heavyweight prize fighter, he was not afraid to mix it up on the picket line with cops and strikebreakers.

Sorrell’s footwork in the boxing ring – not to mention the brass knuckles he carried – came in handy. In the 1930s, labor organizing in Hollywood could be more hazardous than stunt work. Many studio heads had already cut sweetheart dealswith the mobbed-up trade unions, notably the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, run by a Chicago-schooled gangster namedWillie Bioff.

Animators Put Down Their Pens

On May 28, 1941, the Screen Cartoonists Guild called a strike, and hundreds of animators walked out on Disney.

Brazenly violating Disney’s copyright, the strikers repurposed Disney characters into pro-union spokesmen and paraded outside theaters playing Disney films.

There are no strings on me!” exclaimed Pinocchio in one placard. The slogans were as clever as the visuals: “Snow White and 700 Dwarfs,” “3 Years College, 2 Years Art School, 5 Years Animation Equals 1 Hamburger Stand” and “Are We Mice or Men?

Disney was enraged. He claimed that Sorrell had threatened to turn the Burbank studio into a “dust bowl” unless he caved to the strikers’ demands.

Behind the scenes, Disney offered the SCG a deal brokered by the gangster Willie Bioff.

Disney then placed ads in the trade press saying he had made generous offers to “your leaders” – that would be Bioff – and had acceded to most of the strikers’ demands.

“I am positively convinced that Communistic agitation, leadership and activities have brought about this strike, and has persuaded you to reject this fair and equitable settlement,” Disney said.

“Dear Walt,” Sorrell retorted, “Willie Bioff is not our leader. Present your terms to OUR elected leaders, so that they may be presented to us and there should be no difficulty in quickly settling our differences.”

Eventually, the feds, in the person of the National Labor Relations Board, intervened. On July 29, after 62 days of rage on both sides, Disney settled – through clenched teeth. Disney and the Screen Cartoonists Guild squabbled intermittently until the end of the year, but Sorrell had won on the big points: better wages, job security and a “closed shop,” which requires union membership as a condition for employment.

Disney’s Revenge

To Disney, though, this wasn’t just a dispute between management and labor. It was oedipal rebellion against the father in his own house.

In October 1947, Disney got his chance for revenge when he testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating Hollywood for alleged communist subversion in motion picture content and within the ranks of organized labor.

Disney was called as a friendly witness, and friendly he was: While waiting to testify, he good-naturedly sketched picturesof Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse for the children of the committee members.

At the witness table, Disney emphasized that while today “everyone in my studio is 100% American,” the percentage had not always been so high. He named the name that had stuck in his craw since 1941. “A delegation of my boys, my artists, came to me and told me that Mr. Herbert Sorrell … was trying to take them over,” Disney said. Sorrell and his cohorts, charged Disney, “are communists,” though admittedly, “no one has any way of proving those things.”

Proven or not, Disney’s allegations were career-killers. Many of the activist cartoonists of 1941 fell victim to Hollywood’s notorious blacklist era, when hundreds of workers on both sides of the screen were rendered persona non grata at the studios for their political affinities.

As a result, the Screen Cartoonists Guild softened its tone. In 1952, it voted to become affiliated with the firmly anti-communist International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees – Bioff’s former outfit. As for Sorrell, he was hounded by charges of communist sympathies and ultimately barred from a leadership position in his own union.

Disney, you know about. After venting before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he navigated the company back to the 50-yard line of America’s culture wars. There the entertainment conglomerate stayed – until recently, when it wandered off Disney World into the swampland of Florida politics.

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39 comments

  1. orlbucfan

    We taxpayers who live in “the swampland of Florida politics” near the Tragic Kingdom are crossing fingers and toes that we won’t get $$screwed$$ in this fight.

    Reply
  2. Larry

    And history repeats itself with Desantis and the right more broadly raising the spectre of evil communism and Marxism for all our ills.

    Reply
  3. Joe Well

    McCarthyism only worked because capital was in fact making huge concessions to labor. It would be much harder to make union organizers unsympathetic nowadays.

    Reply
    1. JEHR

      I would be interested to know what “huge concessions to labor” that capital made during the McCarthy era.

      Reply
    2. anon y'mouse

      you lived through “Bernie bros” and “i beat the socialist” and all of that and still can say this with a straight face?

      it’s much easier to demonize anyone nowadays. all you need is one off-color remark (which was not considered so at the time it was made) from someone in the third grade and they are effectively silenced as they are made to look like some kind of bigot against someone, somewhere and therefore ridiculous and untrustworthy even in light of a longstanding history to the contrary.

      Reply
  4. ambrit

    Do notice that, in the original “Mouse Kingdom” deal, Disney had carte blanche inside their “Unhidden Kingdom” in the swamps. This included their own police and an unrevokable license to build a nuclear power station for “The Kingdom.”
    Silly trivia, I know, but when he trained to be an ambulance driver in WW1, Disney knew another ‘escapee’ from Illinois, Ray Kroc, who went on to found McDonalds.
    As one would expect, there is a lot of ‘fabulation’ surrounding this “asociation.”
    Something about it: https://alanehunter.com/2020/01/30/disney-eats-mcdonalds-part-i/
    Do keep reading. It has some interesting Mcnuggets about the styles and politics of both men.
    Such as, when Lyndon Johnson gave Disney the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” at the White House in 1964, Disney showed up wearing a Goldwater for President pin.
    Stay safe Mousekateers!

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      >>>unrevokable license to build a nuclear power station for “The Kingdom.”

      Say what? While in the past they had a more… relaxed position on nuclear power and safety, just how does anyone get such a deal? Free visits in perpetuity to members of the government and their families and descendants?

      Reply
      1. ambrit

        Walt’s brother Roy was the mastermind behind the “Magic Kingdom” deal. Roy was effectively the mastermind behind the “Mastermind.”
        Don’t forget where this occurred; Florida in the 1960s. Florida has always been one of the most corrupt States in the Union.

        Reply
  5. haywood

    Many thanks for this morning dose of American labor history. I wasn’t aware this guild was still active.

    Reply
    1. Jonhoops

      Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists local 839 ( renamed The Animation Guild) is still active. Recently successful in organizing a few more studios in LA and Vancouver.

      Reply
  6. Carolinian

    Creatively the difference between the current Disney and the original is the difference between the orginal Dumbo and the Dumbo remake. There was not a lot of “imagineering” at the Iger Disney where the principle idea was to plow through the catalog and try to come up with new theme park rides.

    But there was once magic of a sort and much of it came from those underlings that Walt then dumped on. By the fifties–post strike–the company had already changed and Disney turned to a cheaper animation process and spent more time on his famous theme parks and live action movies. Which is to say it was already about brand and a dominant position feeding entertainment to the moppets.

    IMO the dispute with Florida is crazy and the exec who thought was a good idea has reportedly stepped down. But perhaps it was/is part of an already ongoing identity crisis.

    Reply
  7. flora

    Disney currently has plenty of labor problems.

    Disney Is Still Trying To Avoid Paying Its Writers
    https://www.techdirt.com/2022/05/06/disney-is-still-trying-to-avoid-paying-its-writers/

    https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/star-wars-author-royalties-disney-1234951422/

    Disney trying to cover itself with social virtue over a non-monetary issue (they thought) is a clever way to distract from its financial mistreatment of employees, imo. / ;)

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      It’s unclear why they even need writers since they pump out the same crap formulaic movie every single time.

      Reply
      1. JBird4049

        Maybe if they paid their writers what they were owed, they wouldn’t have to?

        I am always startled by the vehemence of business owners of the past hundred plus years towards actually paying their employees more, never mind to unions existing. Usually the demands are very reasonable, often that of just being able to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their families, still leaving the owners, executives, and investors mountains of cash. Often the owners insist on paying armies of lawyers, goons, and politicians as much as they were not paying the workers.

        It often seems that the owners are petulant children having a tantrum over their lost fee fees and absolute near slave like control over their workers just daring to speak for themselves.

        Reply
  8. Mark Gisleson

    Hollywood makes a lot more sense now that I know the studios were run by fiercely anti-Communist/pro-Mafia visionaries.

    Reply
    1. anon y'mouse

      they were in a mafia of their own, just a different and “legitimate” one. which is how they resisted anyone moving in on their turf.

      Reply
    2. Carolinian

      Louis B, Mayer was a big Republican but the Warner brothers were what we would call liberals. As for IATSE it’s current headquarters are in NY, not LA, and I believe it centered in Chicago back in the day.

      During the early 20th century, organized crime gained influence over parts of IATSE in collusion with employers. In June 1934, IATSE held an election with only one person running.[16] The election was rigged by the soon-to-be elected President George Brown. The other two opponents in the running suddenly dropped from the race after death threats were received. Willie Bioff, another Chicago gangster, was instantly elected Browne’s “personal representative”.[16]

      Later that year Bioff went to Hollywood on behalf of IATSE.[17] He used violent threats to discuss a private and limited contract with studios. These contracts included weak contracts and high dues. The studios liked the protection against the union. In 1941, Bioff and other mobsters were charged with corruption leading to union members attempting to remove them from power in IATSE. However, The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees remained corrupt and reverted to fraudulent negotiating practices.[17] Some sources suggest that, in the later years, IATSE was “more interested in breaking strikes than winning them”.[16] .

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Alliance_of_Theatrical_Stage_Employees

      Stagehands Local number one is in NYC,

      Reply
  9. Synoia

    I live in Anaheim, about 2,000 ft to the North of Disneyland. Many Neighbours work for Disney.

    They all assert that wages are low.

    In addition Disney has such a good relationship with the Anaheim Council and achieve astoundingly good deals from the Council. One of which was a multi-level car park, built by the city for Disney’s use and at the end of the lease can be bought by Disney at an asrounsubgly low price.

    Reply
  10. sd

    Disney (and the other animation studios though this really got started with Disney) pays its Color Designers less than the other crafts solely because – historically – they were women. Thread on the history of Color Design formerly Ink & Paint
    https://twitter.com/colordesign839

    Reply
  11. Dr. John Carpenter

    Also, his 100% American testimony to the HUAC people is kind of interesting. I just re-watched a Disney tv show from the 50s on space travel. It was loaded to the gills with ex-Nazis. Walt wasn’t unique in that aspect. After all, these people were the basis of NASA. It’s just always interesting to me how nazis ok but commie bad bad bad.

    Reply
    1. bongbong

      Just follow the Benjamins and the fact that Nazi-R-OK and commies-are-bad will be very, very easy to understand.

      In fact, keeping the Benjamin adage in mind will explain pretty much everything.

      Reply
  12. Big River Bandido

    In the late 1980s as a college musician I auditioned for the Epcot Entertainment Arts Experience Program, where I played for one summer in the backup band for the daily show at the castle. My band mates and I noticed in the first few weeks a very cold attitude coming from the professional musicians employed there.

    About 4 weeks in to the 12-week program, we learned that the band that had been playing our show (all unionized, as required) had been *laid off* 4 months earlier and that management and union had been at each other’s throats for months.

    The Entertainment Arts Experience Program was *quite* the learning experience, indeed; I had never heard the term “scab” before. None of us expected to be put in the position of learning about the entertainment business through being strikebreakers in a labor dispute. I don’t know if my fellow band mates had been propagandized to be Disney children, but my parents were never into it and I was mostly immune to the blinded sentimentality and fakery of it all. I went home that August, completely turned off by Disney and the brain-dead pablum cranked out by the “entertainment industry” and passed off as “music”. I altered my career course to focus on different types of music, and I have maintained an absolute boycott of everything Disney ever since (there are lots of subsidiaries masquerading as separate entities).

    Any company that preys on the idealism and naïveté of music students is simply despicable. Schadenfreude doesn’t begin to describe my feelings — I jumped for joy when I read about the repeal of the Reedy Creek district.

    Reply
  13. Anonymous Coward

    Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy Disney and grand neice of Walt, and self-professed traitor to her class, has a documentary out, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.”

    Through the stories of Disneyland workers living on the edge of poverty and the perspective of labor experts and academics, the film strips away the cheery veneer of the “Happiest Place on Earth” to expose what Disney sees as the immoral culture of corporate greed at not only its heart but that of American capitalism as a whole.

    Reply
  14. Arizona Slim

    Back in the day, the brother of a local friend considered working for Disney. It was for some sort of artistic job.

    He was chagrined to learn that whatever he created, even if it was in his spare time, belonged to the Big Mouse. Although my memory is shaky on this point, I’m pretty sure that my friend’s brother didn’t take the job.

    Reply
    1. jrs

      Don’t know about then, but now it depends on the location. California has laws against that, elsewhere though, good luck.

      Reply
  15. responseTwo

    Disney has also shafted tech workers. As a retired tech worker, I know what it’s like to train someone from the other side of the world and then get laid off on the next business slowdown, while the people you trained keep their jobs.

    https://firsthand.co/blogs/workplace-issues/disney-s-disgraceful-tech-layoffs

    about 250 Disney employees were told in late October that they would be laid off. Many of their jobs were transferred to immigrants on temporary visas for highly skilled technical workers, who were brought in by an outsourcing firm based in India. Over the next three months, some Disney employees were required to train their replacements to do the jobs they had lost.

    “I just couldn’t believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs exactly,” said one former worker, an American in his 40s who remains unemployed since his last day at Disney on Jan. 30. “It was so humiliating to train somebody else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/us/last-task-after-layoff-at-disney-train-foreign-replacements.html

    Reply
    1. Fat Freddy's Cat

      Dan O’neill was also involved in the water ballooning of the queen’s yacht on San Francisco Bay in 1983.
      Calling themselves the ‘Irish Navy’ several small boats ‘attacked’ HMY ‘Britannia’ with water balloons as a protest against the repression of Irish patriots.
      ‘Odd Bodkins’ forever!

      Reply
  16. Aaron212

    Back in the ’90s my older brother did some sort of “business internship” at Disney World, which basically meant he worked in some of the stores (he lived in Disney shared housing (dorms), the cost of which was deducted from his meager paycheck.
    The nickname for the place back then was “Mauschwitz” — as apt a name then as now or any other time in Disney history.

    Reply
  17. Savita

    It’s a bit of a tangent but the best I can do considering in Australia we are somewhat immune to the Disney thing, it’s not a ‘presence’ in culture the way it is in the US. It’s just basically cartoons on TV as a kid and then animation at the cinema for the kids ( and adults). I am reminded of the autobiography of the CEO of Pixar. I think the book is called ‘ Creativity Inc.’ I didn’t find it that easy to read but I basically permanently put the book down when I got to an anecdote in the book. The CEO was explaining how the role had changed him and the way it encourage his growth and learning and personal development. But, some lessons took longer than others. A weekly meeting contained multiple tiers of staff. Executives and more practical hands on staff also. Only the executive level sat at the table with the CEO and everyone else crammed into the room itself. It took 10 years for the CEO to realise that only the people at the table with him were receiving his attention, and being included as participants in questions and answers, and prompted for feedback. 10 years for him to realise he should ask questions of everyone else present, ask them their feedback, make them feel included and inclusive. And that they had thus far felt marginalised, ignored, and irrelevant. It was so disingenious I felt dirty

    Reply
  18. Harry Shearer

    Disney was widely known in LA to be the only studio to, to put it mildly, be hesitant to hire Jews. OTOH, in the post-Fantasia period, the studio gave its artists (relatively) free reign to do two other films with cartoon art set to non-classical music–“Make Mine Music” and “Melody Time”; both are quite beautiful.

    Reply

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