It has often been rumored that hidden messages lie within the artwork of Disney films. While many purported instances might be easily dismissed, there is one movie whose hidden message is without dispute. Fans of the film “Dumbo” may be surprised to learn that a sequence in the film was added in retaliation against cartoonists who had walked out on strike over union recognition. So, while the film may be a timeless reminder of childhood innocence, it is also a reminder of labor’s never ending struggle for respect.
Throughout the 1930s, Hollywood’s flourishing entertainment industry experienced an increase in unionization. Stagehands, actors, directors, editors and writers all successfully formed unions. By 1938, animators in Hollywood had established a branch of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG). Within three years, the SCG obtained contracts with every major animation studio in the area, except Disney.
Disney was the largest studio in the area, employing over 800 animators or seven times more than the entire membership of the local SCG branch.
Disney’s animators were well paid, but several issues fueled discontent among them. The first was inequality in pay. Compensation ranged anywhere from $500 a week for a top animator to $12 a week for a cell painter. Another issue was Disney’s reneging of bonuses and pay raises for cartoonists who had worked on “Snow White.” While the film was released to much critical acclaim and great financial success, the cartoonists, instead of receiving their promised compensation, were met with layoffs. Many of those laid off were SCG members or identified as ‘troublemakers.’ Lastly, animators were not individually featured in the credits of the film; instead, all the credit was given to Walt (Disney) himself.
Early in 1941, the SCG appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to recognize the Disney unit and censure Disney for fostering a company union, the Federation of Screen Cartoonists. A Disney cartoonist, Art Babbitt, had been the president of the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, but resigned because he believed the union was not free from Disney’s control. He soon joined the SCG and encouraged others to do the same. After meeting with the SCG, Disney laid off twenty-four cartoonists, including Babbitt and other members of the union.
Within days of the terminations, SCG members voted to strike in demand of union recognition. On May 28, 1941, hundreds of Disney cartoonists walked off the job. The walkout split the studio, with approximately half the cartoonists walking out. Large picket lines were maintained outside company gates and were joined by Warner Brothers cartoonists, who at one point dressed as French Revolutionaries in light-hearted solidarity. During their hours off, unionized chefs from nearby restaurants cooked for the picketers. Resentment between striking cartoonists and those who crossed the picket line increased quickly.
The strike lasted five weeks and began to take its toll on Walt personally as Disney’s studio production slowed greatly. Following the advice of friends, Walt left for a tour of Latin America. In his absence, a mediator was able to settle the strike, ruling in favor of the SCG on every issue. Many cartoonists received pay increases of nearly 50%. Those who were fired after the SCG meeting were allowed to return to work with the exception of Art Babbitt, who was forced to pursue legal avenues before being allowed to return.
Walt felt betrayed by the striking animators. Years later, during his testimony in front of the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC), he accused them of being radicals. Subsequently, many of the striking animators were blacklisted. At the time of the strike, “Dumbo” was in production. In response to the striking cartoonists, those who were loyal to Walt added a new sequence to the film. It depicts drunken clowns (representing the striking cartoonists) trying to take credit for Dumbo’s success as they march off to “hit the big boss for a raise.”
Despite Disney Studios contentious labor history, animators there still remain unionized today. In fact, since the 1950s, Disneyland has continued to be one of the most unionized amusement parks in the country, with 31 unions–including Local 324–representing Disney employees.