Walt Disney cheated his animators out of profits — and their strike changed the world

Walt Disney cheated his animators out of profits — and their strike changed the world

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike just shy of a month now, with no foreseeable end in sight. Motivated by a breakdown in negotiations with Hollywood studios over pensions, residual compensation for streaming productions, health care, and protections for writers rooms in the wake of AI, the WGA strike represents a fight, in the words of writer-comedian Adam Conover, “for the survival of television and film writing as a sustainable career.”

This ongoing drama over the future of the American entertainment industry is just the latest in a long line of conflicts between collective labor and monopolized power. Given how inevitable those conflicts are, it’s worth looking back at how important they’ve been as well, in terms of shaping the current entertainment landscape. This week marks the 82nd anniversary of a game-changing strike at Walt Disney Animation Studios, one that sent shock waves throughout Hollywood and reshaped the American animation industry as we know it today.

The Disney animators’ strike of 1941 wasn’t the first strike of its kind: The Fleischer Studios strike of 1937 produced the industry’s first union contracts. But the Disney strike was a critical moment for the American labor movement. By 1941, every other major animation studio, including Warner Bros. and MGM, had already effectively unionized. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ holdout was one of the less flattering and lesser-known ways the company stood apart from Hollywood orthodoxy.

The strike may have been part of the spirit of the times, but it’s just as attributable to the company’s workplace culture throughout the 1930s, and to one event in particular. Ironically, it’s the same event that transformed Disney from a popular animated-shorts house into a cultural powerhouse: the production and theatrical release of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

A painted cel of the seven dwarves weeping at the bedside of a sleeping Snow White. Image: Walt Disney Pictures

The seeds of dissent at Disney were planted as early as spring of 1934, when studio founder Walt Disney first announced plans for his company’s most ambitious and challenging undertaking to date. Inspired by a formative experience as a kid in Kansas City, watching J. Searle Dawley’s 1916 film Snow White in theaters, Walt set out to produce the world’s first full-length cel-animated feature film, in color and with accompanying sound.

The three-year production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a massive undertaking, requiring 32 animators, 1,032 assistants, 107 inbetweeners, 10 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators, 158 inkers and painters, and countless other uncredited members of the production staff, according to the Walt Disney Family Museum website. The movie suffered significant delays: Its first completed animation was submitted to Disney’s ink and paint department on Jan. 4, 1937, less than a year before its premiere date.

In total, Snow White required 250,000 drawings to be animated, inked on celluloid animation frames, painted, and photographed — and that’s not counting the completed sequences Walt ultimately chose to cut from the final film. Inkers were expected to trace a minimum of 30 cels per day, while each painter was expected to complete 17 cels a day. In October 1937, the production staff was informed that, for Snow White to be ready by its premiere date, their regular work schedules would be extended from nine-hour workdays, five days a week, to 10-and-a-half-hour workdays, six days a week, with no paid overtime. Disney animators weren’t properly compensated for overtime work until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 federally mandated overtime pay for employees working over 40 hours per week.

Tensions were high in the studio during the critical months before the premiere, and so were the financial stakes. Snow White’s production, initially budgeted at $250,000 (around $5.5 million in 2023) ballooned to $1.5 million (around $33 million in 2023), with Walt himself mortgaging his home to finance the film, according to Michael Barrier’s 1999 book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. The situation was so dire that Hollywood executives and trade papers nicknamed the film “Disney’s Folly.” Before its release, it had a reputation as an overpriced vanity project that seemed destined to flop. In an attempt to ameliorate the tensions and keep morale up, Disney verbally promised the production staff that 20% of the film’s total profits would be divided up among the film’s creators, proportionate to their contributions and unpaid overtime hours. That turned out to be a lie.

Archival image of strikers during the Disney Animators Strike, holding hand painted picket signs depicting well-known Disney characters like Daffy Duck and the Three Little Pigs. Image: Cartoon Brew

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered on Dec. 21, 1937, and expanded to theaters nationwide the following February. It became a critical and commercial sensation, grossing more than $2 million (in 1937 dollars) by the end of the summer, and garnering praise from celebrities including Charlie Chaplin and Battleship Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein, who credited it as one of the most impressive works of cinema of its time. As animation historian Jake S. Friedman writes in The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age, “The Snow White artists patiently awaited their profit-share bonuses as the film made huge returns all over the world. In May, Walt and Roy made enough money from Snow White to pay back their bank loans. For the first time in two years, the studio was out of debt.”

While trade papers at the time reported that Disney’s studio was going to distribute an estimated 20% of Snow White’s earnings among the studio’s 800 employees, the actual bonuses those artists received were equal to or less than what they had previously received for the studio’s short films. Some Snow White animators, including Art Babbitt, did not receive any bonuses for their work.

A former commercial artist who joined Disney in 1932 as an assistant animator, Babbitt was quickly promoted to an animator proper, thanks to his prodigious talent for character animation and penchant for delivering quickly on assignments. By 1941, Babbitt was highly regarded as one of the studio’s top artists, credited with defining Disney’s signature brand of personality-driven animation through his work on the character Goofy, and for his work animating the likes of the Wicked Queen in Snow White, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and Mr. Stork in Dumbo.

At one time seen as one of Walt Disney’s most valued and trusted animators, Babbitt also became one of the strike’s key organizers. The lingering animosities over unfulfilled promises and unpaid wages following Snow White’s production were a sticking point for workers like Babbitt. But Walt Disney refused to rectify the discrepancies in pay among his employees, or address their other workplace concerns in good faith.

Tensions between artists and management continued to mount in the years between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ release and the months before the strike. The money Walt promised to distribute among the workers instead went to the construction of a new Burbank campus for the studio, complete with lavish accoutrements such as industrial air-conditioning, custom-made furniture, a coffee shop that delivered milkshakes to order, and a “Penthouse Club” athletics building, restricted to employees with a salary of $100 or more a week.

While Babbitt himself enjoyed a comfortable office, complete with wall-to-wall carpeting and a full-size animation desk, he noticed that the visible disparity between the offices of full-fledged animators, assistants, and animation trainees created an unspoken caste system built into the foundation of the studio. According to Friedman, when Walt asked why Babbitt wouldn’t join the Penthouse Club even though he met the minimum salary requirement, he replied, “As soon as you make it accessible to everyone, I’d be happy to join.”

A cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a picket sign with text that reads “Disney Unfair.” The text below the image reads, “Printed by Disney strikers on offset duplicator, handmade stencil (over).” Image: California State University, Northridge

The commercial failure of Walt Disney Productions’ next two features — 1940’s Pinocchio and Fantasia — put significant financial strain on the company and took a toll on the workers’ morale. With World War II limiting the demand for animation overseas, Disney Animation’s future was uncertain. While the creation of the Burbank campus was intended as a long-term investment in the studio’s future, the overzealous expense of both building it and financing the company’s productions during the war forced Disney to make hard and unpopular choices, including several rounds of layoffs that put the studio’s entire staff on edge, emphasizing just how little job security they had.

Assessing the situation, Babbitt and Screen Cartoonist’s Guild president Bill Littlejohn met with Walt Disney to demand recognition of the membership of Disney animators within the guild and to negotiate a contract recognizing their collective concerns. Walt refused, claiming the guild couldn’t be a union representing Disney’s workforce, on the grounds that they were already represented by the Federation of Screen Cartoonists — a “loosely knit social organization” posing as a union. The Federation was devised by Disney’s vice president and head lawyer Gunther Lessing to rebuff attempts by outside organizations to unionize the studio.

On May 27, 1941, 315 Disney animators who had chosen to be represented by the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild voted in favor of striking. Babbitt, who had been an influential force in organizing the push to unionize with the guild, was fired that same day, on the grounds that he had “disturbed the morale of the employees [and] seriously interrupted and disturbed production operations.” The next day, the Disney animators’ strike began, and it lasted nearly four months.

The strike drew attention across the industry, damaging Walt Disney’s then-immaculate public image. Tempers flared between strikers and non-strikers, culminating with Disney and Babbitt yelling at each other outside the Burbank campus on June 12.

But the strikers unequivocally won out in the end. Walt had nationwide protests, the verdict of federal mediators, and the counsel of his brother, Roy Disney, and their inner circle of financiers standing against him. He agreed to recognize the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild and concede to the striking animators’ demands. Employees received raises, weekly hours and overtime were standardized, and Art Babbitt was rehired and formally protected from any retaliatory or discriminatory repercussions.

Art Babbitt leads a picket at the premier of The Reluctant Dragon during the 1941 Disney Animators Strike.
Art Babbitt picketing outside the premier of “The Reluctant Dragon” during the 1941 animators strike.
Image: Cartoon Brew

Work resumed on Dumbo, which at the time was still in production, but the atmosphere and workplace culture of the studio was irrevocably changed. Former friendships between colleagues split along the lines of strikers versus non-strikers, and dissolved into sectarian feuds. Babbitt, Bill Tytla (responsible for animating the demonic Chernabog in Fantasia), Frank Tashlin (who worked in Disney’s story department, and later on Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts), and other artists left the studio one by one to join Disney’s competitors, including Terrytoons and MGM’s cartoon studio, among others.

The Disney animators’ strike of 1941 stands as one of the most consequential milestones in the history of American animation. If not for the strike, United Productions of America — the American studio behind projects like Ted Parmelee’s 1953 adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart and Robert Cannon and John Hubley’s Gerald McBoing-Boing (both preserved in the National Film Registry) — would never have existed. UPA’s pioneering modernist animation would never have inspired celebrated contemporary animators like Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken and Dexter’s Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky. Maurice Noble, the art director best recognized today for his work on Chuck Jones’ 1957 short film What’s Opera, Doc?, might never have left Disney to join Warner Bros.

The fight for unionization in the American animation industry continues to this day, with The Animation Guild IATSE Local 839 — the modern successor to the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild — having successfully campaigned to unionize and represent production workers across multiple animation studios, including Titmouse (The Venture Bros.), Nickelodeon, ShadowMachine (Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio), Green Portal Productions (Rick and Morty). In the midst of the ongoing WGA strike, it’s important for both fans and working professionals to remember what can be gained through collective action — and for studios to remember the perils of depending on creative people to drive the profits, all while taking them for granted.