Disneyland,” by Sean MacEntee

March 8, 2018; NPR and the Los Angeles Times

The magic of Walt Disney’s world thrills million of children of all ages every year. Thousands of “cast members” come together to energize the corporation’s simple philosophy: When you walk through the gates of one of their theme parks, “you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” For the cast, however, leaving the worries of today behind may not be so easy; a recent employee survey found that for many, the working conditions make living a secure and stable life very difficult.

A Los Angeles-based nonprofit, The Economic Roundtable, recently published the results of their research based on a survey of Disney’s California employees:

  • Disneyland employees report high instances of homelessness, food insecurity, ever-shifting work schedules, extra-long commutes, and low wages.
  • More than 85 percent of union workers at Disneyland earn less than $15 an hour.
  • Almost three-quarters say that they do not earn enough money to cover basic expenses every month.
  • More than one out of ten Disneyland Resort employees report having been homeless—or not having a place of their own place to sleep—in the past two years.

The Economic Roundtable, whose “mission is to conduct research and implement programs that contribute to the sustainability of individuals and communities,” was blasted by Disney executives. Disney said the research “is inaccurate because it was answered by only a limited number of union workers. The company also said that the average hourly resort worker earns $37,000 a year, which works out to nearly $18 per hour.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of living for a family of four in Orange County, California, where Disneyland is located is over $100,000; for the areas surrounding Walt Disney World in Florida, a family of four needs more than $75,000 a year to live.

Workers and the company have been engaged in an ongoing struggle over wages. According to NPR, “In December, 93 percent of union members rejected the theme park’s offer of a $200 signing bonus and a $1-an-hour raise over two years.” Following the passage of tax reform legislation, the Disney Corporation announced it would share some of the tax savings it would realize by giving every employee a $1,000 bonus. But shortly after, it conditioned that offer on the union’s agreement to the contract offer the workers had already rejected. The unions have moved this part of the labor agreement to the National Labor Relations Board, charging that withholding the promised bonuses this way is just retaliation for employees rejecting a contract.

Earlier this week, the unions tried to make their case for higher salaries by demonstrating outside the company’s shareholder meeting. According to the Los Angeles Times,

A group of workers from the Disneyland Resort waved signs, chanted and demonstrated outside Walt Disney Co.’s shareholders meeting in Houston on Thursday, demanding the company provide a “living wage.” The demonstration was the latest effort by a coalition of unions at the Anaheim theme parks that is pushing Disney executives to raise wages for the resort’s 30,000 workers during a profitable period for the Burbank media giant.

The unions have also tried to engage civic leaders in their cause. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The unions have submitted a proposed ballot measure to the Anaheim city clerk, which would require the resort and other large employers that receive city subsidies to pay a minimum of $15 an hour, starting Jan. 1, 2019, with salaries rising $1 an hour each year through Jan. 1, 2022. Annual raises would then be tied to the cost of living.…The demand for higher wages comes only a month after Disney raised ticket prices as much as 18 percent despite a highly profitable 2017, with one of its most expensive annual passes selling for $1,149 for its two Anaheim parks.”

Cast members and their unions may want to heed the words of Walt Disney in their struggle for living wages and better working conditions. As they guided his efforts to grow a drawing of a cute mouse into large and successful business, they can guide his employees struggle for a fair shake. For one, living conditions do matter: “A man [sic] should never neglect his family for business.” Second, go for what you believe in, despite the obstacles: “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”—Martin Levine