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Led by Sanders, Democratic Lawmakers Demand End to 'Starvation Wages' for Disney Workers

"No one who works for 'The Happiest Place on Earth' should wonder where their next meal is coming from, or where they're going to sleep at night."

goofy, mickey, minnie

Workers dressed as Goofy, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse attend the World of Color Premiere at Disney California Adventure Park. (Photo: Josh Hallett/Flickr/cc)

As the U.S. Supreme Court decimated the power of public sector unions on Wednesday, labor groups continued to negotiate with Disney—one of the world's wealthiest media companies—on behalf of thousands of theme park workers, and nearly two dozen Democrats in Congress, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), called on chief executive Bog Iger to stop paying employees "starvation wages."

"Today, that iconic, magical place 'where dreams come true' has become a nightmare" for several thousand workers at Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida, 23 lawmakers declared in a letter (pdf) to Iger. Detailing the dramatic pay disparity between Disney's top executives and its employees, they wrote:

As you know, Disney is not a poor company. It is not going broke. Disney is a $150 billion corporation, which made $9 billion in profits last year. It received a $1.6 billion tax break from the Trump tax plan and has received hundreds of millions in local tax breaks from the city of Anaheim. The Disney Board recently reached a four-year compensation agreement with you on a compensation worth an estimated $423 million over the next four years.

Unfortunately, while Disney's profits are soaring, the wages and benefits for many of its workers are totally inadequate. The people who walk around all day in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck costumes, the workers who prepare and deliver the food, the men and women who collect tickets and manage the rides make wages so low that they are barely surviving.

In February, the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable published results from its "Working for the Mouse" survey of employees at California's Disneyland Resort. The surveyors found:

  • more than 85 percent of workers make less than $15 an hour;
  • nearly three-quarters can't cover their basic expenses each month;
  • more than two-thirds are food insecure; and
  • more than half are worried about being evicted.

Although the lawmakers outline the survey's findings, they also highlight "heartbreaking and mind blowing" recent testimony from Disney employees who are fighting for a "living wage." Earlier this month, Sanders hosted a forum of Disney employees in California, at which he proclaimed, "The time is now to have an economy that works for everyone, not just a handful of billionaires."

Since the event, Sanders has repeatedly taken to Twitter to appeal directly to Iger, and to reiterate how attempts by Disney's top leaders to keep workers' wages remarkably low reflects a common experience across corporate America:

"In the year 2018, no one in America, especially those working for a profitable corporation like Disney, should be homeless, living in their cars, or not be able to feed their families," the lawmakers' letter concluded. "By sitting down with all of your unions and negotiating a fair contract that pays a living wage, provides affordable and accessible healthcare benefits, and a reliable schedule, Disney can show the rest of corporate America that it must value not just the bottom line and its wealthy shareholders, but the workers responsible for making those profits a reality."

Or, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a signatory to the letter and deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, put it, "no one who works for 'The Happiest Place on Earth' should wonder where their next meal is coming from, or where they're going to sleep at night."

In addition to Sanders and Ellison, the letter to Iger was also signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) as well as Reps. Henry C. Johnson, Jr. (Ga.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), Donald Norcoss (N.J.), Mark Pocan (Wis.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Richard M. Nolan (Minn.), Mark DeSaulnier (Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Tim Ryan (Ohio), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Jared Polis (Colo.), Alan Lowenthal (Calif.), Nanette Diaz Barragán (Calif.), Chellie Pingree (Maine), Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), and Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii).

The letter comes as the Trump administration's Justice Department on Wednesday approved Walt Disney Co.'s proposed $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox Inc., with the condition that Disney—which already owns ESPN—sell off Fox's 22 regional sports networks. The green light from federal officials followed just six months of reviewing anti-trust concerns and an attempt by Comcast to challenge the sale by offering Fox a competitive bid.

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