Babbitt Boycotts his Boss

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 12.03.17 AMWhether 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.

BabbittHead

Art Babbitt

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.

3-3 Lessing headshot

Gunther Lessing

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.

Feb25 Guild Letter to Disney

 

 

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.

Mar 1 Letter from Painter Disney Federation

And shortly thereafter, the posters appear at the Disney studio disparaging the GUILD – and Babbitt in particular. There’s this:

Feb 27 Disney Boycoot Federation GuildAnd also this:

March 2 Disney Federation flyerSo 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.

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike | Leave a comment

The Fake Disney Union Strikes HARD

A Federation membership card from 1939

A Federation membership card from 1939

Federation Membership card 1941

A Federation membership card form 1941

By February 1941, the fake Disney union, the company-run FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS, was under threat.  Rounding the corner was an actual independent union, the SCREEN CARTOONISTS GUILD.  The GUILD had already signed up the animators of MGM.  Around Feb 6 [or Feb 15 – sources vary] the GUILD held a mass meeting.  After Dorothy Parker read a speech, Art Babbitt took the mic and publicly discredited the FEDERATION.

On February 4, the National Labor Relations Board – the same department of the U.S. government that had certified the FEDERATION – began investigating the GUILD’s charge that the FEDERATION was in fact an illegal company union.

Although union activity on company grounds is against the National Labor Relations Act (section 8, subsection 2), the FEDERATION posted bulletins throughout the Disney studio.  Here are a few from February alone.

Feb 3 Federation Disney Feb 4 Federation Disney Feb 5 Federation DisneyNotice that the FEDERATION is not only trying to reinforce its position as the sole union legally designated by the Labor Board, it also tries to disparage independent unions, like this single incident in San Francisco.  Still, it’s not enough to repel people from the GUILD.   After the GUILD’s huge meeting in the second week of February, the FEDERATION pulls out even more stops:

Feb 8 Federation Disney Feb 9 Federation Disney Feb 10 Federation DisneyThe FEDERATION touts itself to be “clean, fair and organized” and has “definite contractual aims” that seem in line with what the average GUILD member wants. The GUILD members consider it smoke and mirrors.  The FEDERATION had been promised negotiations once before, and then company management said they had no use for unions.  In two years, the FEDERATION had earned no negotiations for the employees.  The GUILD, meanwhile, had been organizing other studios (most recently MGM) for months, and earned them union contracts.  This was a union that could get things done.

Feb 14 Federation Disney Feb 15 Federation Disney

Though labeled an “impartial chairman” of the FEDERATION, attorney Anthony O’Rourke’s salary during February, March, April and May of 1941 was not impartial.  Fifty per cent of his salary was gleaned from Disney management, and 50% came from the Federation budget.  In November, O’Rourke was hired full-time by the Disney company as the director of labor relations.  “The strike hurt the company!” he would later protest in court.   Not the words of an impartial chairman at all.

Feb 16 Federation DisneyThe “contract” – though tempting – is still at the whim of the studio.  Almost too little too late.  Besides its arbitrary sliding scales, and there is still nothing set in place for the top earners.  It does not satisfy GUILD members.  But don’t take my word for it – take a look for yourself at the images below and consider what you would do if you were offered this new salary plan at the Disney studio in February 1941.

Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p1 Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p2Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p3 Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p4

Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p5

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike | Leave a comment

The Fake Disney Union

As noted in the previous post, the fake (i.e. company-based, non-independent) union was called the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS and was formed collaboratively Between Disney’s vice president/head lawyer Gunther Lessing, and top animator Art Babbitt.  Executive officers include president Art Babbitt.  Lessing initially insisted it act as a loosely knit social organization rather than a bona-fide union.

 

March 7, 1938

March 7, 1938

The first bulletin of the Federation

The first bulletin of the Federation

In July 1939, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. designated the Federation as the sole union for Walt Disney Productions.  The meeting location noted in this bulletin is Babbitt’s personal home address.

Federation Disney 03

By the fall of 1939, the FEDERATION has an election for new officials.  Disney cartoon director Bill Roberts is now president (while Babbitt is vice president), and the Federation is calling itself “A bona-fide independent union.”

Federation Disney 04

At the same time, the SCREEN CARTOON GUILD  (later known as the Screen Cartoonists Guild), an actual independent union under the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers, begins targeting other animation studios throughout Hollywood. Included are Walter Lantz Productions (Woody Woodpecker cartoons) and Leon Schlesinger Productions (Bugs Bunny cartoons)Federation 05 SCG

By January 16, 1941, the GUILD is targeting Disney employees, handing out leaflets like this one, and holding an information session at a nearby hotel.

By the end of January 1941, the FEDERATION‘s attorney, Anthony O’Rourke, sets in place an “impartial machine” (i.e. guaranteed system of impartiality). It’s a tactic to win more supporters.  This memo reminds the reader that the Federation was lawfully designated Disney’s sole union.

Disney Federation of Screen Cartoonists Jan 30 FSC

A bulletin for January 30, 1941’s Thursday meeting of the FEDERATION.

Disney Federation Screen Cartoonists Jan 30

Even if you have already signed up for the Guild, simply signing this pledge card for the FEDERATION will revoke your Guild membership. Easy as pie!

Federation Pledge Card

And by February 1941, it gets even crazier! … To be continued…

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike, miscellaneous | Leave a comment

THE DISNEY STRIKE – pt.1

The Disney Strike has shaped Hollywood politics for 75 years.  It was during an age in which an entire industry (film) was slowly becoming unionized, and an entire workforce (animation artists) was the last to do so.  More than three hundred Disney artists went on strike for the right to have an independent union.   Spoiler alert!  — they won!  And then there was a law suit.  Actually, there were two.  And Art Babbitt headed them both.  Here’s a condensed version of the story of the Disney Strike and the ensuing repercussions.

Broadly speaking, the 30s was a hotbed of union activity, and Hollywood was no exception.  Unions like the Screen Actors Guild, Screen Directors Guild, Screen Writers Guild (remember that strike that made Colbert improvise a week’s worth of shows a few years ago?) were all formed in the 1930s.

Willie Bioff

Willie Bioff

One of them was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a corrupt union run by a couple crooks, racketeers Willie Bioff and George Browne.  Bioff & Browne, who had mafia ties, would sign up a studio’s entire department to the IATSE, and then blackmail the studio heads with a strike unless they would personally pay them off.  It was an underhanded scheme, plus they were giving unions a bad name

In 1937, the Disney artists were working their tails off to finish Snow White.  Even the 1937 newsreels attest they worked “day and night,” thus earning less per hour.  Why?  Two main reasons: 1) They knew they were part of something monumental. And 2) Walt promised that a share of the profits would be going back to them.

Babbitt

Art Babbitt

In early December 1937, mere weeks before Snow White was set to premiere, word got around the Disney studio that IATSE reps were scouting out the joint, trying to sign people up. This infuriated Babbitt.  Babbitt was a midwestern son of immigrants who struggled to support his parents and siblings in New York City.  He believed in hard work and an honest living, as well as civil liberties.  He did not want his freedoms – or the freedoms of the studio – to be compromised by crooks.  So he went directly to the VP, Roy O. Disney.  And Roy pointed Babbitt to VP and company Lawyer, Gunther Lessing.

Gunther Lessing

Gunther Lessing

Lessing was about 15 years older than the Disney brothers, and with his bald head and three-piece-suit, looked the part of the supportive father figure the brothers sought.  Babbitt and Lessing collaborated on a “loosely-knit social organization” to keep the IATSE out.  It premiered in January 1938 and was called (drum roll…) “THE FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS.”

GuntherLessingArtBabbittII copy

Lessing and Babbitt living it up (also with Marge Babbitt and Les & Mimi Clark)

Roy O. Disney

Roy O. Disney

The Federation promised to give Disney employees negotiating power that would obviate the need for IATSE.  Except no negotiations took place.  So people got bored with it and lost interest – until July 1939, when the National Labor Relations Board (all the way in Washington D.C.) certified it as a union.  Everyone was thrilled. In October, the animators who made up the Federation board – Babbitt as VP, and cartoon director Bill Roberts as Prez – met with Roy to discuss union demands.  But Roy refused to negotiate.  He had no use for unions.

Snow White was a smash hit.  Walt paid his artists the bonus as promised – except many argued that this bonus only equaled the unpaid hours they had already worked.  Walt’s real bonus was the brand new studio he was building for his staff, a beautiful new campus in Burbank, complete with air conditioning!  Alas, air-conditioning wouldn’t put food on these artists’ tables, and they move into the new digs in January 1940 with mixed emotions.

Throughout 1940, interest in the Federation continued to wane again, until October when Lessing called Babbitt and the rest of the board into his office.  He was panicked: the IATSE had signed up members of the camera department.  Babbitt couldn’t care less at this point and told Lessing so.  That night, the Federation board members agreed to let their faux-union fade into oblivion.

Meanwhile, a new union popped up that would be called (wait for it) the SCREEN CARTOONISTS GUILD.  This was legit, and they were a splinter group of another legit union, the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers.  The Guild had signed up the animators from the other studios, most recently MGM (as in “Tom & Jerry” cartoons).

Union sign-ups were remarkably loose and therefore hard to keep straight.  All you needed to do to be member of a union is to sign your name on a slip and date it.  The organizer kept that slip.  If you change your mind and sign up for a different union, that union made it easy for you; all you do is sign and date one of their slips, and that negates the previous union’s slip.

WaltIn December Walt called Babbitt and the other Federation heads into his office to try to stop the Guild from representing the studio, which, according to a letter from the Guild, they already did.   But if those who joined the Guild would instead join the Federation, Walt would sign a “closed-shop” agreement with the Federation. A “closed shop” means that everyone at the studio would be required to be a member of a union – in this case, the Federation. Walt said: call the Federation’s attorney and we’ll sort this out!

Bill Roberts

Bill Roberts

Babbitt thought this was bullcrap and refused to call the Federation’s attorney.  Instead, Bill Roberts ran to phone with a “We’ve got to do this for Walt” attitude.  Their attorney wouldn’t take part, and Roberts dragged Babbitt on a quest – during company time – for a new lawyer. Now Roberts was acting unilaterally when there should be a vote among the board, which technically already voted to dissolve.

Hal Adelquist

Hal Adelquist

By January 1941, supervisors (like Freddy Moore!)  were going around the Disney studio trying to get employees to sign up for the Federation.  By February, Babbitt was going around talking to employees about the Guild.  It was also that month Babbitt started getting fewer assignments from the studio.  He talked to associate-director Hal Adelquist about that.  Adelquist and he had been old friends – had even introduced Babbitt to Babbitt’s wife, Marge.  Now he was telling Babbitt to stop this union-talk on company time and property.  Babbitt pointed out the hypocrisy in Adelquist’s words.  In March Babbitt accepted the position of the Disney chairman for the Guild, and started having Guild meetings at his home.  His first decision as chair – start a Disney boycott! Lessing read about this in the paper and nearly blew his top.

In April, Babbitt and Walt met about a potential $2 raise for Babbitt’s assistant [sources vary on whether this was Bill Hurtz or Chuck Shaw; maybe it was both]. The salary schedule for employees was more or less arbitrary, and Babbitt didn’t want his assistant to get paid any less than another assistant whose work isn’t even as good. Walt refused, so Babbitt paid the raise out of his own pocket. And this company-defying behavior infuriated Walt all the more.  (According to Babbitt,) Walt said to him, “If you don’t quit organizing my employees, you’re going to get into trouble.” Later that month, the National Labor Relations Board (all the way in Washington D.C.) had its first court hearing questioning the Federation’s authenticity.

In early May, Babbitt received no assignments.  Walt said it was because Babbitt was hard to work with, but no director, including Roberts, corroborated this story. Meanwhile, because of the heat from Washington, the Federation disbanded … and the next day a new company union popped up in its place with the same people on its board.  On May 16, the studio fired two dozen Disney employees.  All of them were Guild members, and some of them were Guild board members.  The Guild got pissed. They made a statement saying that they want to have a meeting about this with Walt.  Alas, not Walt nor any Disney management responded, even after several tries.  Finally, on May 27 the Guild voted to mail a telegram to the studio saying they’ll strike if they don’t get a meeting.  So Disney management responded ……..

….. by firing Art Babbitt the next day.  It was right after lunchtime.  Like a boss, Babbitt parked his car out front and took his time emptying his desk and loading his car until the spectacle attracted the majority of the employees.  And hundreds of them walked out.

And so, May 29 began the first picket of the Disney Strike.

Stay tuned for Part 2!   

 

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | Leave a comment

Courtroom Testimony: THE DISNEY PROCESS

babbitt introduceOctober 8, 1942.  Disney animator Art Babbitt sits on the witness stand in California Superior Court.  He is using Walt Disney Productions over wrongful termination.

courtroomOn November 24, 1941, 98 Disney artists were laid off.  For the most part, these were artists who had participated in the 9-week Disney Strike, which had only ended that August.  Arbitrators from Washington had come in to settle the strike.  One of the conditions stated specifically that Babbitt’s job would be protected.  But Babbitt was among those fired in November.

[Babbitt was simultaneously suing Disney in civil court over unpaid bonuses.  This man was suing Walt Disney Productions – twice – at the same time.  That takes moxy.]

Witnesses would include Warner Brothers directors Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin, Disney directors Jack Kinney, Dick Lundy, Bill Roberts, Dave Hand, and Wilfred Jackson, and of course, Walt Disney himself.

Babbitt was on the witness stand for two and a half days, and he never faltered once.  One of the first questions his lawyer, Charles M. Ryan, asks is to describe the Disney process from concept to creation.

What’s unique is that this is not promotional material (like the “peek behind the scenes” newsreels promoting Snow White) or dramatized (like The Reluctant Dragon).  This is genuine testimony of how golden-age Disney films get made, described by a well-spoken and informed animator DURING the golden age!  And what’s more, he speaks to the layperson, clarifying points that trial examiner, the honorable C.W. Whittemore, can understand.      Babbitt courtroom transcript p38

Babbitt courtroom transcript p39Babbitt courtroom transcript p40Babbitt courtroom transcript p41Babbitt courtroom transcript p42Babbitt courtroom transcript p43Babbitt courtroom transcript p44

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike, 1942-1946: Repercussions | Tagged | 1 Comment

This Year’s Books and Docs on Disney’s Golden Age

This year alone has seen the release of so many great works on Disney history.  Let’s take a look at some of the standouts!

Behind Magic02Behind the Magic: Snow White, produced for ABC

How could I not start with this?  Besides being a featured contributor to this documentary that aired on ABC this month, I found this to be an entertaining way to “relive” some of Walt’s earliest experiences.  With esteemed historians in both animation and folklore, plus reenactments of key moments in the development of he first cartoon feature, this doc has something for everyone.   … Don’t believe me? watch it HERE on Hulu. (Did I mention I was in it?)

Behind Magic01
HahnBefore Ever After: The Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio, by Don Hahn and Tracey Miller-Zarneke

Modern-day Disney legend Don Hahn knows how a Disney storyteller thinks.  Come on, the man produced Beauty and the Beast and Lion King.  Like the rest of us, he uses is cognitive powers to travel back to the 1930s to try to figure out how those artists got so good so damn quickly.  This starts with a meaty chapter about the in-studio art school – and for the first time in print credits Babbitt’s role in that process (with some pictures and key details provided by yours truly and the Babbitt estate).  The bulk of this book is  hi-rez scans of meeting notes and typed lectures from those days.   There’s a lot of raw material here, and 90% of it is text – but you get to see what artists say in their own words AS they develop elements like timing, layout, and of course, character analysis (that’s Babbitt).

 

PBSAn American Experience: Walt Disney, produced for PBS

Now available on DVD, this two-part doc features incredible interviews from surviving Disney artists, and terrific raw footage from those days (some of which was provided by yours truly and the Babbitt estate – just sayin’). Part One concludes with the end of the Golden Age (i.e. the Strike) and Part Two ends with Walt’s passing.  I have heard complaints that there is too much conjecture in this doc about what Walt was feeling at any given time.  Personally I think that there’s a very fine line between that and presenting the facts in such a way as to let the audience make their own conjecture.  Given the time restraints – painting a man’s life in a single 2-part TV special – I think they did OK.  Best of all, for the first time on public television, you get to hear about Babbitt and his role in the studio (in the final 10 minutes of Part One).  This sets the stage for the visceral wage wars of the Disney Strike.

 

GhezThey Drew as They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age, by Didier Ghez

Finally!  A Disney art book with 99% art!  Filled with pre-production renderings from concept scketches to storyboard drawings, this book is an inspiration for historians and artists alike.  I wish I had this book 15 years ago when I started to seriously work on honing my own drawing skills.  You can follow the pencil lines of these artists, while reading about their lives and oeuvre.  Albert Hurter, Ferdinand Horvath (friend of Babbitt), Gustaff Teneggren, and Bianco Majolie are all profiled here.  Included are words from the artists themselves via letters and personal documents.  I will have to present more on that at a later time, because there are some true gems here.

Kaufman

Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic, by J.B. Kaufman

The Disney studio artists got their feet wet with Snow White.  For Pinocchio, they were at the top of their game and really started breaking the rules.  A glimpse through these pages gives an idea of the enormous amount of work and care that went into this movie.  While we’re speaking about percentages, about 30% of the pages are filled with spectacular art, including lush backgrounds, model sheets (my favorite!)  and photos of miniature models (like Pinocchio’s raft).   In between are anecdotes about the film’s development.  There’s a terrific section on Geppetto (Babbitt’s character) that I will have to discuss at a later time.

 

 

 

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike, Animation, Disney, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | Leave a comment

The Prolific Print Cartoonist

CoverBefore joining Disney in the 1930s, young artists might carry a portfolio of drawings and reels of animation to Walt’s office.  Art Babbitt was only 24 when he went in for an interview with Walt in the summer of 1932.  In addition to being a Terrytoons animator, Babbitt was also a published cartoonist in a humor magazine called “Merry Go Round.”

In just a single issue (August 1932), Babbitt had a whopping 13 original cartoons printed.  This was while he worked 6 days a week for Paul Terry.  These professional drawings show how Babbitt used every opportunity to move forward.  He was constantly plunging ahead,  taking control of his creative output, financial status, and career goals.  Still supporting his ailing father, Babbitt fought tooth and nail for the American dream in his art.

Notice how he renders the caricatured human form – all in animation drafting techniques that he never had a chance to practice at Terrytoons:

•The figures have the “line of action”  through the bodies – a technique that breathes life and movement into animation.

•Each pose is a very clear representation of “the character’s story.”

• The figures, if they were “in silhouette,” would be dynamic and clear.

BabbittPanel4 copy BabbittPanel3BabbittPanel6

BabbittPanel1BabbittPanel2BabbittPanel5“While Smith – Ritchie – Roosevelt – Garner and nine others scrap amongst themselves, the Democratic Party in a final desperate move appeals to Mickey Mouse to run as a dark horse. ‘But I don’t want to be president,’ says Mickey.  ‘I’d rather do funny things in the movies than in the White House.'”

Posted in 1929-1932: Terrytoons, Illustration, New York | Leave a comment