In 1941 Disney animators went on strike in an attempt to unionise. Walt Disney fought back with speeches, fists, firings, and Dumbo.
It was dangerous being in a union in the 1930s and 1940s: you could be fired or blacklisted for expressing “pro-union sentiment,” let alone for actually organising or striking. Animators were not unionised, but collective action would eventually come their way with the formation of the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild in 1938. In the next three years they had agreements in place with every cartoon studio in Hollywood except one.
Walt Disney liked to play favourites. His head animators were rich (earning $500 a week, the equivalent of about US$8,700 today), the lowest animators were not ($12 a week, about US$200 today). The top talent had a restaurant, gym, and sauna at the studio; the others, nothing. But the strike, when it arrived, came from one of the top animators: Art Babbitt.
Babbitt was a key part of Disney Animation Studios: he animated the queen in Snow White, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and developed the character of Goofy. He was also pro-union. In 1941, he and another animator named Bill Littlejohn approached Walt Disney asking for unionisation.
(Side note: Littlejohn would go on to have an illustrious animation career of his own. The iconic scene of Snoopy dancing on the piano in A Charlie Brown Christmas? That was him.)
Disney refused, and summoned the entire company into an auditorium where he lambasted them for laziness:
My first recommendation to the lot of you is this: put your own house in order, you can’t accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything. If you’re not progressing as you should, instead of grumbling and growling, do something about it.
This… did not have the effect he desired. With union sentiment on the rise, Disney fired Babbitt and other pro-union animators. The next day, the strike began.
Disney was deep in production of the film Dumbo at the time, and roughly one fifth of their staff were outside the studio on the picket line, taunting him and demanding a union. Walt Disney almost got into a physical fight with Babbitt (now leading the strike). But the conflict came out another way: in the animation itself.
In Dumbo, the circus clowns get boozed up and head out of their tent to “ask the big boss for a raise.” One of the clowns bears a strong resemblance to Art Babbitt… and in fact I believe that it was animated by Babbitt himself. You can see the video here:
Was this he forced to animate this caricature as a result of his union activities? Did he volunteer for that assignment? Was the joke, in fact, on Disney? I’m quite perplexed about this, and cannot find a good explanation online. If you know more, please leave a comment!
Walt Disney eventually left for South America – to cool off, I imagine. While he was away, a settlement was negotiated and the strike ended. Many of the animators, disillusioned with their treatment, left the studio… and some even formed their own studio, UPA, which went on to create Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing. Babbitt was rehired after appealing his dismissal to the Supreme Court; Disney went on to badmouth them all at the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The studio remains unionised to this day.