Whether you’re loyalist or whether you’re on the verge of striking, if you’re a Disney employee in early March 1941, you’ve got to hand it to Babbitt — this man has some serious moxy.
Babbitt had been frustrated as hell with the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS, which was the Disney company’s attempt at a management-controlled union. First the company refused to negotiate with the Federation, and then the company only wanted to negotiate with the Federation under terms that served its own purposes. At no time did a conversation between the Federation and the management lead to actual negotiations. The Disney workers were not getting what they wanted – which included a clearly-stipulated pay schedule. So Babbitt abdicated his position as Federation chairman and joined the bonafide independent union, THE SCREEN CARTOON[ISTS] GUILD. The GUILD was recently successful with organizing the animators at MGM. Babbitt became the chairman of the Disney unit of the Hollywood-wide GUILD.
Bear in mind that the common thread in all this is NOT Walt Disney himself. Walt left the mantle of these labor relations to his VP and chief attorney, GUNTHER LESSING. It was Lessing who co-formed the Federation with Babbitt. It was Lessing who condoned the suggestion to fire all the cameramen in the IATSE union.
On Wednesday, February 26, Lessing received a letter on his desk from the GUILD, dated the previous day. In summary, this letter threatens Disney with a national boycott. And it’s sent directly to – not Walt Disney, and not Roy Disney but – Gunther Lessing.
Lessing immediately called Babbitt into his office looking for an explanation. “Mr. Babbitt stated that neither the Unit nor its officers or executive committee had approved the letter, knew nothing of its issuance, [and] that the letter did not express the sentiments of the Disney Unit of the Guild.”
Lessing asked Babbitt if he thought this method of a boycott was fair. Babbitt replied that he didn’t know what to say.
Lessing then held a conference on the same day, with other Disney management and Babbitt. And Babbitt told them exactly what he had told Lessing earlier.
Lessing telephoned Howard Painter, the legal counsel for the FEDERATION and member of its administrative committee. Lessing asked Painter what the FEDERATION planned to do “to counteract the effect of these grossly unfair tactics on the part of the Guild…” Painter pointed out that if Babbitt and his committee had nothing to do with this boycott proposal, it appears that the left hand of the GUILD doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Painter began drafting a letter ….
Then on Thursday, February 27, Babbitt told the Disney management a different story — that the boycott resolution was approved by 25 members of the Disney unit of the GUILD before the letter was mailed!
On Saturday, March 1, Painter wrote a letter sharing this exchange with the broader managerial and/or Federation officers.
And shortly thereafter, the posters appear at the Disney studio disparaging the GUILD – and Babbitt in particular. There’s this:
And also this:
So now we’re getting into the first week of March, 1941, and Babbitt is actively conspiring against his employer. He’s a trickster, stirring the pot, and I imagine he’s getting a kick out of subverting their authority.
It is reminiscent of the pranks Babbitt used to pull as a teenager in Sioux City. At sixteen, Arthur and his cohort used to sneak into the rich part of town at night and secretly switch the contents of each ice ice box that sat on every back porch. They also climbed the school’s fire escape to sneak into an upstairs window, and they placed a single pool of water on every chair in each classroom.
But now that Babbitt is 33, he’s trying to cut the Federation down to size through any means necessary. This marks the beginning of the “David and Goliath” story of Babbit v. Disney. It would coalesce in the weeks ahead and into 1942, and it will last the rest of his life.