The Screen Cartoonist's Guild was formed in 1938 in Los Angeles, California. Following the events of the Van Beuren Strike, the Fleischer Strike, and the Disney Strike, a band of Los Angeles Cartoonists gathered and elected Bill Littlejohn as President. The group of Cartoonists went on to form contracts and resolve issues with numerous studios including MGM, Screen Gems, and Disney. Screen Cartoonist’s Guild was later renamed to the The Animation Guild, I.A.T.S.E. Local 839 and is currently still in existence.
For many years animators had been treated as secondary workers that were not important enough to be taken seriously. However, in the late 1920s animation had become a huge business in Hollywood studios. It is in part due to men like Walt Disney, Paul Terry, and Walter Lantz for providing many jobs to several hundred artists in the West and East Coasts. The beginning of the unionization of animators can be seen to start on October 29, 1929, when the Stock Market Crash occurred and many needed to find a more stable income source. As the Nation attempted to recover, President Roosevelt issued a bank holiday on March 8, 1933 in order to stabilize the crashing of the banks. The Hollywood studios were heavily reliant on Wall Street investors, however, the bank holidays made it impossible for investors to give them the money flow required. This forced studio executives to come up with a solution that would cut the salary of employees, with previous contracts, by thirty-fifty percent. In addition to the salary cuts, studio executives took no pay cuts for themselves.The unfortunate timing of the Great Depression of 1929 and the unfair treatment of studio employees would lead to the eventual creation of the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild.
Initially cartoonists did not have a union of their own rather they began with the union, International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) in 1914. This union was the only one not to have been hit by the massive salary cuts which in turn caused a mass spree of unionization to take place in Hollywood. As the union numbers grew in Hollywood many studio executives began their own stand against them, one of which was Darryl F. Zanuck who was quoted saying, “You put a picket line in front of my studio and I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow you all down.” Many picketers and union members were being fired at a steady rate adding onto the already growing anger. The battle between the two continued and all the while union groups only began to grow even more popular. However, an animators only union had still not been created. In 1925 Bill Nolan, attempted and failed at creating the first union exclusive for animators. Later in 1932, animators from numerous studios, which included Myron “Grim” Natwick, Shamus Culhane, Al Eugster, etc., hosted a meeting in a Hollywood saloon. They invited additional animators in order to discuss the similar mistreatments that all animators were receiving. Eventually, Myron Natwick would become the first president of the group of animators. Popularity amongst the group grew until even the studio executives took notice and began threatening the employees. The group began to disband after many of the union members had lost their jobs.
New York City Unions, however, were having much better luck succeeding in their causes.Van Beuren and Max Fleischer, studio owners, were the major powers in New York City, in the late 1930s. Animators on the East Coast, John McManus, Hicks Lokey, Jim Tyler, and Bill Littlejohn, formed a new club called the Unemployed Artists Association (UAA). The UAA eventually became the Commercial Artists and Designers Union (CADU) after Roosevelt’s regulation changes. CADU then also created a new union called the Animated Motion Picture Worker’s Union (AMPWU). These two became the go to unions whenever employees were being mistreated. Supervisors for Van Beuren’s studios began to demand even longer hours to be put in by the employees, including weekends and overtime, without the employees being paid. Any resistance to the new policies would result in immediate termination. Van Beuren also brought in a new supervisor from Disney Studios named, Burt Gillett. To the dismay of the workers Gillett was no better than his predecessors, treating the employees even harsher than before. Many artists began to complain to AMPWU about the dire situation at Van Beuren’s studios, one of which was a woman animator named Sadie Bodin. Sadie Bodin had been one of the few workers who chose to speak out against her supervisors and was later fired. In response to her termination Sadie Bodin argued that the Wagner Act, passed in 1935, prevented the supervisors from firing her for wanting a union. Burt Gillett, however, fired her in order to replace her with another employee “Whose attitude was better.” Sadie BodinISadie and her husband responded to this unlawful termination by becoming the first people to picket an animation studio on April 18, 1935. These protests inspired the AMPWU to start a case against Van Beuren, however, the National Labor Relations Board ruled for Van Beuren. Gillett used this momentum to target any union members, fire them, and blacklist them so they would never be able to find another job.
The Fleischer Brothers, composed of Max and Dave, were the second major power of the New York animation scene. Their popularity began with their “Out of the Inkwell” series and later they would become well known for their characters, Betty Boop and Popeye. Fleischers began to deal exclusively with Paramount Pictures and soon they became even bigger with the introduction of Sound to programs. With famous musical talent such Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and the Mills Brothers, they became a powerhouse of entertainment. Max Fleischer oftentimes considered himself to be a father figure at his workplace even though the environment was broken down, the wages given to employees was inhumane, and any credit was minimal. Despite these things Max would still give out large loans to staff who needed it, threw huge parties, gave bonuses on Christmas, and promoted the first woman animator in the United States, Lillian Friedman. With these conflicting positive and negative actions that Max Fleischer was responsible for the reason why the company flopped and hundreds of artists demanded a union, practically overnight, was because of Max’s need to rule alone. The immigrant workers under Fleischer’s employment had been children of other working-class immigrants that had left their previous countries because of such dictators. In turn these immigrant parents taught their children that someone who could not respect the rights of employees a need for change is necessary. Unions and other organizations, created for the working class, seemed like the only ones who truly cared about the workers, causing immigrants to flood into their ranks. The animation cameramen had already joined the IATSE, Camera Local 644 Union, and the musicians joined Local 802, and animators still lacked a union of their own.
There was, however, a non-official club of animators led by Myron Waldman and Dave Tendlar. This non-official group called, The Fleischer Animator’s Club, had severe problems of its own when it came to the ranks of animation artists. The disgruntlement of ranks made it easy for employers to sabotage the union by separating the animators from less important artists. In 1935 word had spread of the problems Van Beuren Studios were having with unionization and Sadie Bodin. Key players from Van Beuren had already made the shift over to Fleischer’s, including Hicks Lokey and Bill Carney, who brought common causes for a pro-union work place. Things began to look bleak for the Fleischers when a young artist, by the name of Dan Glass, had died due to the horrible conditions of his work environment. CADU took this as a call for change and began circling in protest around the studio blaming the death of Glass on Max Fleischer. However, not all of the employees took to the pro-union attitude and instead condemned the actions of CADU. Max took advantage of this and began printing the anti-union chatter around the workplace successfully stalling the organizing efforts until 1937 when things began to look up for animators. The first was the popularization of the Wagner Act, which had been gaining speed since its signing in 1935. The second was the return of the Depression which caused a huge collapse of the economy for the second time. CADU once again took advantage of the situation and demanded a thirty-five-hour week, double time for hours worked exceeding that limit, sick leaves, paid vacations, and a twelve percent raise in wages for all departments. Max refused CADU’s negotiations and chose to fire those who attempted to be middle men for the Union and Studio.
In March, the quota for Popeye cartoons were increased and artists reacted by slowing down work, this resulted in the firing of another middle man, Tony Pinelli. Afterwards, Max Fleischer began placing armed guards at the entrances of the studio to intimidate his employees. On May 6, the final straw came in the form of the firing of thirteen artists because of union involvement. That same day union members had a vote and the vast majority agreed that it was time for the first even cartoonists’ strike. After many months of protesting, Fleischer’s partner, Paramount Pictures, forced Fleischer to sign a deal with CADU. The signing of this contract was the first union contract to be formed in regards to animation. Fleischer and CADU came up with an agreement for a twenty percent raise, forty hour weeks, a paid week of vacation, holidays, and screen credits. The previously fired employees were re-hired and all problems with employers would be handled by the district attorney, Thomas Dewey.
After some time the employees returned to work and for a time it seemed like all was well until the Fleischer brothers received a proposition from Florida. The state of Florida was offering the brothers a tax break to move their business to Miami and since Florida was a right-to-work state and all union organizers were pushed out of the state. Paramount Studios paid for the move and the costs for their movie Gulliver’s Travels. Florida also added exemption from property tax and paid for road improvements around the studio. The announcement of the move came in January 1938, when Max and Dave offered to pay workers for their relocation to Miami. Those who chose to move with the company faced an environment filled with segregation and prejudice that caused them to return to Manhattan. This forced the Fleischer brothers to recruit and train new workers which put them over budget on all of their work eventually leading to Paramount ending their contract in 1942. Paramount then took all of the company’s assets and moved back to New York to do shorts. The Fleischer Brothers attempted numerous lawsuits in order to get their company back but they all resulted in losses for the brothers.
At the end of the 1930s, protests, such as the Van Beuren strike and the Fleischer Strike, had become a monumental influence on all studio employees. The call for a well structured union for animators was reaching critical mass even at the magical kingdom of Disney. Salaries were low, and treatment of employees was horrendous, however, union meetings were quickly extinguished. Union meetings had to be held in secrecy so supervisors and union snitches would not find out. The President of these secret meetings was Looney Tunes gagman Tedd Pierce and the Vice President was Frank Tashlin. Finally in 1938, after being inspired by what was happening at the east coast studios, the Los Angeles cartoonists publicly declared themselves the Screen Cartoonist's Guild. They became a chapter of the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) and in 1939 they were awarded, by the NLRB, jurisdiction over all categories related to the production of animation.
Years after the forming of the guild, employees from every studio across the country began to join, including previous employees of Van Beuren’s and Fleischer’s. The Screen Cartoonist’s Guild elected Bill Littlejohn to be their president and they began organizing cartoon studio blitzes. Littlejohn’s guild recruited more than half of the MGM employees to join the union and ended up doubling all of their salaries. In 1941 Herbert Sorrell became the new president of the guild and began signing contracts with Screen Gems and Warner Brothers. The guild also aided in the resolving of the Disney animators' strike of 1941 by unionizing the company. The Screen Cartoonist's Guild still exists today under a different name, The Animation Guild, I.A.T.S.E. Local 839.