Puppeteers allege Disney is closing show at California Adventure over union activities

Puppeteer Art Vega has worked in the “Disney Junior —  Live on Stage!” show at Disney California Adventure for 14 years, delighting children with performances featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.

But his work is scheduled to end April 9, when Walt Disney Co. plans to close the current version of the long-running show, which stars puppets that have been a fixture of the Disneyland Resort since the attraction opened in 2003.

The Burbank entertainment giant’s decision to end the puppet show comes after a contentious two-year period during which the puppeteers joined a union, the American Guild of Variety Artists. And Vega and some of his fellow puppeteers allege that Disney is closing their show in retaliation for their decision to do so.

“It’s really disappointing and heartbreaking that a company would take people who have worked extremely hard over the years and treat us this way,” said Vega, 35, a Long Beach resident.

 The guild filed two National Labor Relations Board complaints against Disney in 2015 alleging that the company reduced work hours and took other retaliatory actions against 29 puppeteers after they signaled they could unionize. Ultimately, Disney and the union settled the matter, leading to back pay for the workers. 

In response to claims that the cancellation of the show was retaliatory, Disneyland Resort spokeswoman Suzi Brown said in a statement: “We constantly evaluate our entertainment offerings and make changes to provide compelling reasons for our guests to visit time and time again.”  

According to Brown, a new version of the “Disney Junior” show is expected to return without puppets. The puppeteers could audition for roles in this new show, which is expected to include technology upgrades that would allow Disney to more quickly refresh content. The puppeteers also could transfer to other roles at the resort, Brown said. She added that Disney and the guild remain in talks over the affected workers.

The dispute is a window into the complex dynamics of labor relations at Disneyland Resort, which includes California Adventure and Disneyland Park. More than 20 union affiliates represent the majority of the 29,000 workers who are employed at the property. 

“This group of puppeteers … had a very tough time,” said Steve Rosen, the guild’s business representative working with the puppeteers. “Overwhelmingly, they have come and said to me, ‘We don’t regret this for a minute.’ Not a lot of people would do that.”

Although some puppeteers feel otherwise, Rosen said he had no evidence that Disney’s decision to the end the show was retaliatory, but he said the union would file another complaint with the NLRB if he learned this was the case.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for an employer to fire or demote an employee in response to that worker exercising his or her right to unionize.

Catherine Fisk, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law and a labor expert, said Disney appears to be on solid legal ground.

"One might be skeptical given the timing,” Fisk said. “But the law allows employers to change their business model or close down part of their operation and do something else instead. Obviously, for consumers that look at Disney as a good employer and think it’s the happiest place on earth for customers and employees, if they knew that this happened, maybe it would tarnish the Disney brand.”

Shows and attractions sometimes change dramatically at Disney’s various theme parks. In 2016, a long-running “Aladdin” stage show at California Adventure was shuttered, and a few months later a new one centered on “Frozen,” the hit animated film, opened in its place. Some of the cast from the closed show auditioned for the “Frozen” replacement and became a part of it.

Still, Disney has not announced any plans to close or change “Disney Junior” puppet shows currently on offer at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris.

Rosen said that he first became aware of the puppeteers’ situation when he dropped in on the “Disney Junior” show in mid-2014. He was there because the guild  represents a performer who appears on stage in the show alongside the puppets. Rosen said he met some of the puppeteers and suggested that they call him if they wanted to learn more about the union. Some of the puppeteers reached out to Rosen in November 2014, leading to a series of meetings between the union and the workers, he said.

“Disney Junior” puppeteers interviewed by The Times said that they wanted to unionize in part to collectively bargain for better wages. (Currently, there are 28 puppeteers, including two puppet specialists.) The bulk of the workers’ pay ranges from $12.59 per hour to $17 per hour, though the top earner makes $23.07 per hour, according to Rosen.

The puppeteers also said they wanted to bargain for a more comprehensive fitness and training program. The 23-minute “Disney Junior” show is physically demanding, the puppeteers said, and they often find themselves nursing injuries. “Shoulder issues, back issues, soreness, achiness,” said Vega. “The puppets we perform with are heavy.”

In May 2015, the guild  filed a petition at the NLRB to represent the workers, which alerted Disney to their organizing efforts, Rosen said.

Around this time, Rosen said, some of the puppeteers also learned that Disney would no longer allow them to continue working in other roles at the resort. (Some of the puppeteers did side work at the resort, including acting as costumed characters that tour California Adventure and Disneyland Park and interact with visitors.)

“They basically said that if you are going to unionize as puppeteers it is all you can do,” Vega said. He added that the loss of this work for some of his colleagues diluted the labor pool for the “Disney Junior” show, because there were more workers seeking the same number of puppetry assignments.

The puppeteers voted to join the union in May 2015; 29 of the 30 eligible voters cast a ballot, and 20 voted in favor of joining the guild, Rosen said.

In July 2015, the guild filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB over the puppeteers’ loss of work and wages. (Guild officials provided The Times with several NLRB documents related to the matter.)

The complaint, filed against Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc., alleged that the company violated the National Labor Relations Act by “retaliating against employees” after they engaged in union-related activity. The alleged retaliation came in the form of reducing the puppeteers’ hours and assigning them to less desirable work, among other claims. A second complaint centered on how the puppet specialist position was classified and defined. The two cases were later joined.

In December 2015, a settlement was reached whereby Disney agreed to give 30 puppeteers a total of about $167,000 in back pay, according to the NLRB documents.

Under terms of the agreement, Disney allowed the puppeteers who had lost their work in other areas at the resort to return to those assignments, among other stipulations. Disney admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

There has been a positive change that has come out of the puppeteers’ unionizing effort. Now, Vega said, the puppeteers are allotted 20 minutes each day to work out in a training room in order to prepare for the rigors of the show.

And the guild  is in the midst of negotiating a contract for the puppeteers (talks are scheduled for mid-March). Still, the current version of “Disney Juniorremains scheduled to end in April.

The puppeteers learned in December that the show would be ending. Besides Vega, two other “Disney Junior” puppeteers, Ryne Strom and Genevieve Flati, viewed the timing of the show’s closure as more than coincidental. “To me it has to be retaliation,” Strom said. “It is too coincidental for it not to be.”

But Flati said that she and her colleagues take solace in the fact that even if they depart Disney, a contract could apply to future puppeteers who might work at the resort.

“This is protecting future performers and employees of the company, so that they will be treated fairly,” Flati said. 

daniel.miller@latimes.com

@DanielNMiller

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