Three New Perspectives on the Walt Disney Studio Strike of 1941

Those who have studied the history of Walt Disney Studios know that the period of the early 1940s was a trying and difficult time for Walt Disney, employees, investors, and bankers.

While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a sensational box-office hit for the company in 1937 and 1938, the follow-up full-length features Pinocchio and Fantasia didn’t do so well at the box office on their initial release.

In part this was due to the outbreak of WWII in Europe and the loss of foreign market revenues that the studio was counting on in its investment and profit plans.

Without box office revenues and profits to repay loans and reinvest in future projects and opportunities, film production had to be funded out of new sources of cash from outside investors and bank loans.

In April 1940, with the assistance of investment banking firm Kidder-Peabody, Walt Disney Productions went to market with an IPO that raised $3.5 million of much-needed new capital for the studio. The money was used to pay down accumulated and outstanding Bank of America debt.

Less than a year later, in February 1941, Bank of America debt had again risen to almost $3 million. The bank was putting the brakes on the seemingly insatiable appetite of Walt Disney to spend money.

Walt and Roy Disney were summoned to the bank’s head office in San Francisco and ordered to make deep cost reductions. While the bank believed in the Disneys based on their past performance, talk of the U.S. entering the war to assist her allies was increasing, and concerns about the studio’s economic viability were rising.

There was one additional factor at play. At a time when the studio was being squeezed by the bank, staff were worried about job cuts during the ongoing Great Depression and there was increasing talk of military conscription to fight the Nazi’s overseas, a concerted effort was being made to unionize animation workers across the industry and at the Disney studio. Social and economic uncertainty appeared to be conspiring against the immediate viability of the Disney studio.

The tensions of these times for Walt Disney and studio staff came to a head with the onset of an animator’s strike in May of 1941. 

I write in my book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success that after the union leader Herb Sorrell threatened to turn Walt Disney Productions into a “dust bowl” if Walt didn’t capitulate to the union’s demands, Walt was so angry that he fired one of his top animators and leading union organizers and supporters.

That night, an impromptu emergency meeting was called for those who supported union strike action, and, after a series of fiery and rousing speeches, a decision was made to strike the studio.
            The next morning, May 28, 1941, Walt arrived at the studio to find a picket line blocking the entrance. Animators arriving at work that morning now had to choose whether to side with or against the union, and the decision was not an easy one. All of the top animators whom Walt had dubbed his “Nine Old Men” crossed the line and continued to work. Two of them, Ward Kimball and Fred Moore, argued for over an hour about what to do. As Kimball passed through studio security, one of his assistants yelled out: “Ward! Don’t do it! The strike will fail if you go in.” Kimball responded: “If I don’t go in Dumbo won’t get made and the studio will fail!”
            Sorrell had claimed that a majority of staff approved of his union, but only about forty-five percent of staff the union claimed to represent went out on strike. The rest crossed the picket line and remained on the job. At the time of the strike there were 1,079 employees on the payroll. Of these, 294 within the unions’ jurisdiction went out on strike while 352 stayed in. Thirty-seven of the strikers returned before the strike ended, while an additional one hundred studio workers honored the striker’s picket line.

Barry L. Linetsky, The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success

This 1941 Disney studio strike is famous in animation labour history as an event that forever changed Walt Disney, his studio, and perhaps the history of hand-drawn animation. The bitterness that ensued as workers and families were forced to choose sides in an acrimonious labour dispute was devastating to all involved, and is a controversy that is still talked about and argued over, more than half a decade later. (For a perspective on the times and the strike event, see an article by Gary McVey here.)

I recently came across three different perspectives on the strike by Disney insiders, published for the first time in two interesting books.

The first two are from Snow White’s People: An Oral History of the Disney Film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Volume II, by David Johnson (edited by Didier Ghez). The book is a series of transcribed interviews with artist who worked on Disney’s first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

One animator interviewed who worked on Snow White and Dumbo is Maurice Noble. Noble indicates that Walt may have felt betrayed by those who went on strike, but more to the point, says Noble, 

[Walt] just couldn’t understand why people couldn’t live on $13 a week. And yet I’ve talked with guys… They had five guys living all in one little old shack to make ends meet and doing your own cooking and everything. They’d have one automobile so they could go back and forth to the studio. They were living hand to mouth. I was painting back grounds and working there and working my ass off, and yet I was walking to the studio. I was within walking distance of the studio. And I didn’t have a spare cent; I very seldom had any money to spare or throw around. … There was a reason for the strike to happen and a very firm reason for it. Because the living conditions that a lot of guys were living under…. (145)

In the same book, Johnson interviews Ruthie Thompson, who worked in the Ink and Paint Department through this period and beyond. Thompson has a slightly different perspective. 

When asked whether the strike turned Walt into more of an autocrat, Ruthie Thompson replies:

I guess, but I don’t think it was that bad. He learned that he was the boss. He was it before, but it was a friendly it. … The first day of the strike…I said, “What are you going to do now?” He said, “I don’t know.” It was awful. I mean friends became enemies and you just dislike this person and that person because they went on strike. I mean a lot of them lost faith….

Ruthie Thompson is then told by Johnson that Maurice Noble felt that “they didn’t get a living wage” was “good reason to go on strike.” She responds:

I know that’s the reason for it. But they worked at Disney’s and they stayed at Disney’s and they were paid when there was no work, to do something else. In other words, you didn’t lose your weekly check. … In the picture business, the minute the picture’s finished, off you go! They’re laid off and they’re gone until they’re called back and that’s what the picture business is today. (161)

According to Ruthie Thompson, working at Disney wasn’t like working at other studios. There were plenty of times when there was no real work to do at the studio, but instead of Walt laying off staff until a new project arose, 

…we started making these cel set-ups, making the frames and all that just to be busy. We made those so Walt could give them to friends. And we were paid our weekly salary. We had no animation or anything going through and we weren’t laid off. We stayed. We were paid. [In the picture business,] [w]here can you work day in and day out, year after year, you’re working every day, not laid off? (161)

Two different people and two different perspectives on the rationale for the Disney studio strike.

A third perspective I came across recently is in Walt’s People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him, Volume 21, edited by Didier Ghez. One of the gems in this volume is a series of letters written by Sylvia Holland to a family member. Holland was the second woman to become a storyboard artist at the studio.

There were tensions at the studio about salaries and job security because of the insistence by the Bank of America that Walt Disney reduce overhead to keep the business solvent. Bankruptcy would mean all the studio staff would be without work. About a month before the strike, Sylvia Holland writes:

April 21, 1941
My salary is now sixty dollars a month less than I was figuring it from April onwards. Everybody earning $50.00 a week or over was cut. Our cut was five dollars a week, and we all had to sign a release freeing Walt from his obligation on all the contracts, on all of which a ten-dollar raise a week was due in April. …

I don’t think really that it is Walt’s fault. He tries to be fair – though I don’t think so much of some of the small fry. But feature-length cartoons are still so expensive to produce…that there is very little profit, and he carries a terrific overhead – a two-million dollar plant not yet paid for, a payroll of $70,000 a week, and another $26,000 a week operating expense. And 45% of his market vanished into thin air with the war.

… I could not go and “sell my talents” as you so flatteringly put it somewhere else, as the other cartoon outfits are quite punk and pay lower salaries. If it wasn’t for the war, I would be doing well by now…. 

The strike began towards the end of May, and on July 12, 1941, Sylvia Holland provides her perspective. [Note that Willie Bioff was a Chicago racketeer with connections to Al Capone, and somehow briefly wound up in these union negotiations on the side of Disney. Whether Bioff was invited or inserted himself is unclear to me, but soon after Bioff’s involvement, Roy requested a federal arbitrator to intervene and impose a solution. Some further insight is provided here.

July 12, 1941

The Disney strike is still going on, and a very nasty business it is. Gangster leaders of the unions scrapping, with us as the pawns. They really are gangsters, too, with thugs and everything. And the amazing thing is that Willie Bioff, convicted $50,000 swindler and panderer, who is out on bail, and whose trial comes up in about three weeks, is still in control. People in the union do everything he says because they are afraid of his murdering strong-arm boys, and I don’t blame them. Twelve of them turned up at the studio gates the other day in two new torpedo-model cars and flashy clothes and ordered the man at the loudspeaker to lay off Willie Bioff. And the poor cartoonist man was so frightened that he ran and stood behind the state cops, who are now on duty at the gates, and there was no more loudspeaker. It is actually a fact that anyone who tries to fight those leaders is risking his job and perhaps his life. … Bioff also has Walt on the spot, and is trying to dictate his contract with his employees, under a threat of calling out all the projectionists, without whom Walt is helpless.

I am thankful that I stayed in, and am still working and getting my paycheck….

On July 24, 1941, Sylvia Holland wrote that the Disney strike “is worse than ever” with “a threat to tie up the entire Motion Picture Industry” and that the government had sent three “conciliators from Washington to arbitrate it.”  She writes:

I have come to the conclusion that Walt is right and is not trying to do us dirt, but that he is pig-headed and badly advised, and that his head lawyer [Gunther Lessing] is a heel of the first water – very good at being nasty to nuisances and crazy guys who are always trying to sue the studio on absurd counts – but very dangerous when it comes to dealing with employees, most of whom are “white men” who only want a fair deal with their employer. He is a dirty little so-and-so, I think, and really responsible for a lot of the trouble. You should hear the pickets yell when he drives out of the gate – like wild animals after their rightful prey! A gruesome business. (54)

One can see from the contemporaneous writings of these three employees how vastly perspectives on the strike differed. 

It is unlikely that the full story of the strike from both sides will ever be written, which is why the Walt Disney Productions studio strike of 1941 is as controversial today as it was then.  

© 2019, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

Barry Linetsky is the author of the acclaimed book The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press), and an Honorary Disney History Institute Historian. Barry is a writer, photographer, researcher, and business strategy enabler. Follow Barry on Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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