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Cartoonists on the Picket Line: The Walt Disney Studio Strike

A wave of strikes in 1941 affected at least one West Coast industry previously untouched by the labor movement. By the 1930s, animation had become a significant sector of the Hollywood film industry, its production based on factorylike techniques of mass production. World War II deprived Walt Disney of his lucrative foreign market at just the moment when he needed it most; neither Pinocchio nor Fantasia had earned revenues to cover their high production costs and, with the expensive relocation of his studio to Burbank, Disney faced a $4.5 million debt. Relations with his employees worsened as Disney cut wages, laid off staff, and denied long-deferred bonuses. Answering writer Dorothy Parker’s admonition “Don’t let Mickey Mouse become a rat,” other unions came to the support of the Disney strikers. The business agent of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers, Herb Sorrell, testified before a congressional subcommittee that the strikers were bolstered by sympathizers in the other animation studios, principally Warner Brothers' Schlesinger studio.

It was particularly picturesque because these artists insisted on depicting everything on their picket lines. They had all kinds of signs. The best of them, it was their duty when of the picket line to make gags and signs.

Gunther Lessing was Mr. Disney’s attorney, and all of the dealings I had had were with Gunther Lessing. I had never met Disney but once. Gunther Lessing was a red-headed attorney who bragged that he was counsel for Pancho Villa. I told him, of course, I never had heard of Pancho Villa ever winning a legal victory. I thought it was the other kind, and I did not see where he got any glory out it, but he still brought it up to everyone who met with him.

The kids hung an effigy of Gunther Lessing, with the red hair, in front of the gate upon a pole. Disney had made a picture something about a dragon—The Reluctant Dragon. One day the picket line assumed a dragon three or four blocks long, the head weaving, with Disney’s face as the dragon’s face.

There were all kinds of things like this.

Then, lo and behold, about 5 o’clock would come along the Schlesinger group in automobiles decorated all about Disney. The fact of the matter is, Mr. Schlesinger’s artists, I think, spent all their time making up gags about Disney, so that when work was out they picketed him with them.

We had a sound wagon there, and we talked over the sound wagon, and we had a sound system which we installed across the street on a side hill. Every morning we would picket, the kids would picket from 7:30 to 9, and then they would go over to this side hill and from 10 to 11 or 11:30, we would talk to them on a loud speaker system, and of course they could hear in Disney’s what we were saying across the street.

Also, on this hill we had a cafeteria set up, the carpenters built tables, and in California it was summertime, it was all sunshine, and it did not have to be protected from the rain. So they built tables and the culinary workers furnished us a chef, and we served lunch.

At dinnertime we served dinner at 6 o’clock after the mass picket line would go off, after the workers had gone through. And then the musicians many nights would send down a truckload of musicians and they would play and these kids would dance in the street in front of the gates.

They kept busy all the time. The average age was less than 25. They became the most enthusiastic strikers I have ever seen in my life.

Mr. Disney, when he could not get any police from the city, decided to hire 50 private police from outside the city. These fellows came in and the usual rough tactics—began to push these kids around, and some of the young kids were not to be pushed around, they were strapping young men. So I ordered them all inside. I said, “You are working for Disney, you get inside.”

We almost came to blows there. But the Burbank police joined me in ordering the people that Disney had hired inside the property line, so they lined up inside the gate, they were helpless, nothing happened, and there was still no violence.

Source: Testimony of Herbert K. Sorrell, “Jurisdictional Disputes in the Motion-Picture Industry,” Hearings before the House Committee on Education and Labor, 80th Congress (1948), Vol. 3, 1907–08.