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Walt Disney Animators' Strike

I did not know Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) or about the Disney animators' strike. This time in Disney's longstanding history is an event the studio does not widely publicize. Considering the other texts we've engaged with surrounding labor unions and strikes, I investigated the dynamic between Disney and his animators.

The nature of the animation industry's product compared to manual labor industries warrant different demands from workers when on strike. There were strikes in many industries such as electrical machinery, sawmills, logging camps, textile, etc. (United States Department of Labor, 7). In these industries, the people usually called for fairer work hours, safe working conditions, minimum wage, and union control. Although Disney animators experienced labor challenges, the industry struggled with authorship and workplace culture. The issues the animators experienced are similar to the labor relations today in the creative industry regarding screen credit and intellectual property rights.

The tension between the animators and Disney also contributed to the discontentment of those who chose to strike. According to Jon Lewis, "The unfair labor practices at the Disney studios resulted from a paternalistic system in which rewards and punishments were distributed according to the personal whims of Walt Disney" (24). The public perceived Disney as the sole creator behind his animations and took the credit from weary animators who spent long hours in a tense work environment. Disney created a hierarchy within the studio, which may have intentionally isolated workers and dissuade them from unionizing. However, this technique backfired as the animators united to go on strike.

In the aftermath of the strike, Disney never forgave his workers. Lewis writes, "The negative publicity attending the strike militated against long-held notions of amicable relations between supposedly dedicated animators and their Uncle Walt" (23). Disney felt personally attacked and betrayed by those on strike. His testimony to HUAC blacklisted some of his colleagues and attempted to destroy their public image. There were also underlying tensions between Disney and those who returned to the studio to produce war films and propaganda. The familial atmosphere disappeared, and the studio didn't regain prominence during Disney's lifetime (Lewis 23-24). Despite the Disney animators' strike, I am amazed by how the studio bounced back and has become a global media corporation.

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