On this date in Disney history, the Walt Disney Studios was spotlighted for the U.S. government’s list of companies with Unfair Labor Practices (ULP). As the Daily Worker trumpets, “Los Angeles Labor Council Places Products of Disney Firm on Unfair List”.
This is not a top-ten list from a middle school bathroom stall. This is the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) talking, and it had very real consequences. But first, a review:
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA – nicknamed the Wagner Act) was the 1935 bill that empowered workers across the U.S. with union rights. If an employer violated the NLRA rights, the government is obliged step in with an arbitrator to settle it for good. A federal arbitration, at least in the ’30s and ’40s, seems to have consistently favored the employee. That’s Roosevelt for you!
One general violation might be hindering an employee’s right to unionize. This was exemplified by the the Disney company firing of Art Babbitt on May 28. This act inspired the walkout of nearly 400 Disney artists, and the summer-long strike.
However there are two sides to every story, and Babbitt had been rallying Disney artists towards an independent union, The Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG), for some time. He must have felt cheated – he himself had been the head of the Federation of Screen Cartoonists – a different union – before realizing it was a complete sham: it was operated by the Disney company itself.
Walt was not a very political person, but his chief legal adviser, Gunther Lessing, was. While Walt was trying to hold the camaraderie of his studio together, Lessing was the person who focused on the struggle of power, and was confident that the strike wouldn’t last more than a couple days. For the most part, the strikers still admired Walt. But they hated Lessing with a passion.
Feeling that their rights were violated, the strikers on behalf of the SCG filed a charge against Walt Disney Studios. The charge was investigated by the NLRB agents, who attempted to gather evidence, interview witnesses, and file affidavits. The Central Labor Council named a committee empowered to act to place Disney on the American Federation of Labor “Unfair” list.
A note from Variety trade magazine:
No action yet taken on … the SCG complaint against the studio on charges of unfair labor practices. Understood that the delay is occasioned by the inability to obtain witnesses at this time.
New York Variety Weekly, June 11, 1941. p13.
Daily Worker, New York. Friday June 6, 1941. p5.