The Amazon or the Disney road? The struggle to unionise in the US

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama lost a ballot for union recognition at the end of March. The unionisation drive in the town of Bessemer, close to the city of Birmingham, has been a cause celebre of the US labour movement because of Amazon’s notorious anti-union practices, the retail union’s push to have its first official presence at any Amazon workplace and the fact it was the first such ballot under the supposedly ‘union-friendly’ Biden Administration.

Due to Amazon’s violation of the terms of the ballot, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may yet declare that a second ballot is necessary due to Amazon’s alleged cheating. According to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the company had a ballot box installed inside its warehouse, in clear violation of the ballot rules.

In an article in left-ish The Nation, Jane McAlevey has written critically of the RWSDU’s approach to the ballot – a criticism that seems warranted. The RWDSU just didn’t get some of the basics right and a second ballot may well be as disastrous as the first. The union found itself having to deal with having almost four times the number of eligible voters than it had planned for, just weeks before the voting began. Amazon made it hard for the union to get around to all those eligible to vote.

However, McAlevey’s criticisms are let down by her own undue trust in the legal protection of unionism via ‘HR 842, the Protecting the Right to Organize [PRO] Act of 2021, which just passed the House [of Reps]’ and in Biden as ‘the most pro-union President in nearly 100 years’. Only at the very end does she talk about strikes winning, as almost a throwaway line.

In April, Joe DeManulle-Hall wrote in the pro-union magazine LaborNotes that ‘the loss was no surprise to many in labor, [as] Amazon is one of the world’s most powerful corporations and organizing is notoriously difficult under US labor law.’ Yet very few on the left and in the union/labor movement talk about the history of unionisation in the US, which is marked by the strategy of breaking anti-union laws and calling strikes. 


This Saturday is the eightieth anniversary of the Disney animators’ strike in Burbank, California. In another case of workers struggling for the right to organise in a ‘new growth industry’, around 300 animators went on strike to join the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild (SCG) so they could improve their pay and working conditions.

By 1941, the new film industry in Hollywood, which was part of the greater city of LA, was at the tail end of over a decade of unionisation. Disney was in fact one of the last animating studios to unionise, after the SCG had been formed in 1938.

In her seminal essay ‘Twilight of the American Dream’, (1992), US Marxist Sharon Smith quotes Kevin Phillips, a Republican strategist for Richard Nixon in 1968, who in the early 1990s argued that the historical pattern in the country was characterised by a period of unrelenting ruling class assault on workers, followed by an eruption of working-class resistance – as it happened in the 1890s-1910s, in the 1930s, and in the late 1960s and early 70s.

This pattern holds true for the city of Los Angeles, which between 1915 and 1927 was run as a non-union, ‘open shop’ city. Major employers, the Mayors and the police chiefs colluded during this period to virtually eliminate the small number of union workplaces.

Some unions had a presence of Industrial Workers of the World members, who kept unions going.  One police captain quoted in Melvyn Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969) recalled being told by a businessperson to ‘break IWW skulls’ at their meeting rooms.

Nationally, Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General of Democrat President Wilson, created a national climate of anti-radical and anti-unionism.  The 1919 Palmer Raids on unionists, radicals and immigrants saw arrests in their thousands.

In LA, existing unions were locked out, picketing was virtually illegal and dissidents terrorised. As Mike Davis documents in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) One American Federation of Labor (AFL) union after another had been broken in a succession of violent metal trades’ strikes and public transport lockouts. Only waterside workers and seafarers at San Pedro, the port of LA – members of the IWW and unaffiliated to the AFL – defied the local Merchants and Manufacturers Association in their drive to make the ‘open shop’ complete.

According to Dubofsky, the IWW had to survive police, vigilante and Ku Klux Klan assaults in June 1924.


The campaign to regain and secure a union toehold in LA started in November 1926, stalled with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and started up again when its worst effects started to diminish, in 1933.

The Motion Picture Producers’ Association, an open-shop organisation, was started by 17 studios in 1921 to keep unions out. The boom of the 1920s for the film industry was based on low wages of all film workers – wages that were lower than those of local construction workers.

The first union breach of employer ranks occurred in November 1926, when nine Hollywood studios accepted to enter the Studio Base Agreement (SBA) with five craft unions, organised by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IA).

According to Tom Sito, the SBA was little adhered to and union membership remained low, but it established a toehold in the ‘Dream Factories’.

The Depression saw a drying up of credit. Banks and the Wall St stock markets would not invest in Hollywood studios. Studio executives took no cuts but demanded a 30-50 per cent pay cut for the workers, which the IA organised against in 1933. The studios, according to Tom Sito, hated the IA for that.

Just as today the question is who should pay for the Covid-19 recession, it was basic class antagonism over who should pay for the Great Depression that led to the mass unionisation of Hollywood studios.

In May 1941, when the strike started at Walt Disney Productions, half the art department was on the picket line, including some of the best-paid and talented animators, like Art Babbitt.

Prior to the strike, Babbitt and others had joined the SCG. They approached Disney stating that with sixteen members they wished to have a union contract.

In February, Disney called a meeting of all his 1,200 employees at the studio’s auditorium. After his autocratic and paternalistic speech, during which he declared that ‘all this union talk is Communist’, many workers joined the union, bringing the total to about 400.

A union rally at a Hollywood hotel on the 21st of February saw an overwhelming majority join the union. Disney responded by firing Babbitt and the other original sixteen unionists. On the 26th of May, union members at Disney voted to strike. Disney’s backers – a law firm and a bank – urged him to settle with the union, but he flatly refused.

Walt Disney was a notoriously autocratic employer, so LA’s status as an open shop city’ suited him to a tee. With the SCG starting to organise animators from 1938 onwards, Disney set up a sham company union, which even the US Federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared illegal. It was run by Disney’s company lawyer, Gunther Lessing.

To get a flavour of Disney’s politics, he called on Mussolini when attending the Venice Film Festival in August 1938. In December of that year he became one of only two Hollywood personalities to receive the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Although Disney’s cartoon studio was not regarded as part of the Big Five major Hollywood studios, the movie moguls did invite him to their regular conferences to shape policy for the motion picture industry.

In 1939, the NLRB awarded the SCG union coverage of all levels of animation production, from writing to painting. Herbert Sorrell’s success in unionising the animation studios of LA led him to form a new union federation- the Conference of Studio Unions – which included carpenters, painters, set decorators and several other crafts, in rivalry to the IA.

Since 1933, 20 per cent of the studio’s profits from short cartoons had gone towards employee bonuses, but Disney ended this practice in 1936. He also allocated himself all the screen credits in an industry where animators were always acknowledged.

In addition, the studio’s pay structure was chaotic and sexist. Disney favoured male animators, who earned as much as $500 a week, while female ‘cel’ ink artists earned as little as $12 a week. Women were not allowed to go on to become animators, and one animator recalls a woman ink artist collapsing because of malnutrition.

We may wish to compare these conditions to Amazon warehouse workers and truck drivers today, who are forced to urinate into plastic bottles and have their wages deducted for ‘off-task’ toilet breaks or failing their delivery run on time.

Disney ran the studio facilities with a rigid hierarchy. Employee benefits such as the café, gymnasium and steam room were limited to the head writers and animators. Babbitt, although one of Disney’s best paid animators, was sympathetic to low-paid employees and disliked Disney.

He had every reason to. Disney had promised large bonuses and pay rises upon completion of Snow White, in the run up to which he had put everyone on 12-hour days, seven-day weeks, without overtime pay. It was the promise of this bonus that led many to work these shifts.

The completed film made profits four times greater than that of the next most successful film of 1937, yet the bonuses were not paid, SCG members and others labelled ‘troublemakers’ were laid off and no animators got any film credits. All the credits went to Walt Disney.


The nine-week long 1941 strike resulted in Disney being forced to recognise the union, substantial pay rises for the low-paid workers, a 40-hour week and screen credits. The aftermath also saw 500 of Disney’s 1,200 workers leaving for other animation studios.

Tom Sito, President Emeritus of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local n. 839, wrote of Bill Littlejohn of the SCG, in his obituary in the LA Times after his death in 2010: ‘His activism did much to build the standard of living studio animators have today.’  

Was there any genuine rank and file organising by the RSWDU in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse or any minor wins over soap, safety or whatever issue that is the key to opening the door, in a warehouse of 5,800?  There are plenty of grassroots activists in Amazon such as Amazonians United  who can give unions an insight into where the company is vulnerable.  

As the socialist group Marx21 noted in its January 2021 Bulletin, ‘while Amazon is notoriously anti-union, it does partner with UPS, the largest single employer of Teamsters [truck/delivery drivers] in the country.’  This could well be a key strategic opening for unionising Amazon. 

Exploring ways to organise that don’t involve moving immediately to a ballot and minor wins which can all lead up to larger strike action, like that at Disney in 1941, are the key to winning unionisation.

Tom Orsag

Tom Orsag is a freelance journalist, builders' labourer and member of Solidarity.

More by Tom Orsag ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays