May 7 “We’re Popeye the Union Man”

May 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day animators struck Fleischer Studio in New York City.

It was the industry’s first strike.

Creators of Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop were fed up with working conditions at Fleischer.

They were sick of long hours, low pay, no paid sick leave or even vacation time.

Some had worked years without a day off

As well, they resented having to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Animation workers wanted better working conditions and medical insurance.

Two animators had recently died of tuberculosis and workers linked their deaths to poor ventilation in the studio.

They had been trying to organize with the Commercial Artists and Designers Union for over a year.

Two leading animators were fired for union activity a month earlier and another 13 were fired when the union approached the studio demanding their reinstatement, union recognition, wage increases and benefits.

In his book, Drawing the Line, Tom Sito writes that picketers were soon marching on Broadway, singing, “We’re Popeye the Union Man, We’ll Fight to the Finish, Because We Can’t Live on Spinach.”

One picket sign read, “I make millions laugh but the real joke is my salary.” 

Strikers received support from the Screen Actors Guild.

The musicians union refused to provide soundtracks for the studio and many union projectionists refused to show Fleischer cartoons across the country.

The AFL organized a boycott of Paramount Pictures, which financed the studio and area longshoremen frequently joined picket lines.

After five months, the studio finally caved, granting strikers demands.

But the victory was short-lived.

Fleischer made moves to relocate to Florida within a year, in part to bust

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