Column: The Happiest Place on Earth is facing a voter revolt over its poverty wages and tax subsidies


The devil’s bargain that company towns strike goes like this: They get good-paying jobs upon which stable communities can prosper, and in return they can be spurned at any moment and left with abandoned buildings and mass layoffs.

Think Torrance and Toyota, Richmond, Calif., and its shipping yards, or the logging communities of the Sierras. Despite these examples, cities continue to bend to the will of their major employers. Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park and other cities in Silicon Valley basically allow the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world to dictate development and housing, damn the cost-of-living increases or other concerns of longtime residents.

Californians have been slow to recognize that the oversized effect of such conglomerates isn’t purely positive. But they are coming around. Look no further than Anaheim, home to the ultimate business Big Daddy: Disneyland.


In November, Anaheim voters will decide whether to impose a living-wage ordinance on tourism-district businesses that receive city subsidies. It got on the ballot thanks to a coalition of 11 labor unions active at Disney, whose members easily gathered 22,000 local signatures in just two months. If it passes, it will require a minimum wage of $15 an hour in 2019, going up to $18 an hour by 2022.

Take heed, corporate California. You need to do more than supply poverty-wage jobs.

This is my hometown, so I can tell you: Such an initiative would’ve been unimaginable even five years ago. But Anaheim residents (median household income under $61,000) are tired of underwriting a company worth $156 billion. CEOs across the state should pay attention: The era of treating cities like your private strip mine is over.

The pushback against profiteering couldn’t have happened to a more deserving behemoth. The Disneyland Resort — two theme parks, three hotels, and a shopping complex — is an economic powerhouse, employing more than 29,000 people and pumping $125 million into city coffers in 2016 alone. It’s the high-octane fuel that drives Orange County’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

But because of that economic heft, Disneyland has bossed Anaheim around for decades. The entire Anaheim Resort (the official name for the city’s tourism district) has a monotonous anodyne aesthetic because in the 1990s city officials bulldozed the cool, if rundown, Googie motels around the Magic Kingdom to please the company. Those fireworks that delight out-of-towners every night? Residents of the barrios around Disneyland must grin and bear them as the booms set off car alarms and drive dogs crazy.

Then there are the subsidies. A Los Angeles Times investigation last year detailed how Anaheim has willingly subsidized Disney for generations. Among the egregious examples is how the city built a parking structure and leased it to Disney for a buck a year. Visitors pay $20 and up to park there, but Disney keeps all that money. Oh, and when the construction bonds are paid off (by taxpayers), ownership of the parking garage will be transferred to Disney.


Disneyland keeps growing — Star Wars Land will open next year — and attracting record-breaking crowds. Meantime the city around it keeps declining, with more homelessness, less affordable housing and graffiti that never seems to end. All the Mouse offers Anaheim residents are low-paying jobs that barely let people pay the rent. Heck, we don’t even get discounted tickets.

Nevertheless, Anaheim largely gave Disneyland a pass until February, when a coalition of Anaheim unions released a blockbuster report. Researchers with Occidental College surveyed 5,000 Disneyland workers and found 73% earning under $15 an hour can’t make ends meet each month, 57% missed shifts because they couldn’t find childcare, and 11% were homeless at least once in the past year. Disney and its apologists dismissed the report as union propaganda, but it did the job. Suddenly the Happiest Place on Earth looked more like a Dickensian factory.

Disney will certainly fight hard against the living wage ordinance; just a couple of years ago, it got its allies on the Anaheim City Council to pass a rule to prohibit any sort of gate tax for up to 45 years. It will spend millions in the coming months to argue that the living-wage proposal will only benefit union members rather than all Anaheim residents. That’s technically true. But it’s also telling that Anaheim residents are ready to penalize Disneyland for its perceived sins against the working class and local taxpayers.

The grand lie at the heart of California capitalism has been laid bare: Many of our marquee companies reap massive subsidies from taxpayers but benefits never trickle down to the rest of us.

I expect the rest of the state will take notice of what’s happening in O.C. Heaven knows there are plenty of places suffering the same treatment. Amazon is basically colonizing the Inland Empire with its fulfillment centers, making billions on the backs of overworked, underpaid people. And then there’s the entertainment industry, which just got its tax incentives extended to 2025 — even though a 2016 USC study showed such breaks didn’t add jobs or make much of a financial impact in states that tried them.

Disney’s Chief Executive Bob Iger was paid $36.3 million last year. The average Disneyland employee saw their inflation-adjusted hourly wages drop from $15.80 in 2000 to $13.36 today.


Disparities like this won’t stand anymore. Take heed, corporate California. You need to do more than supply poverty-wage jobs. Just ask Disney, which will probably need to enlist “The Incredibles” to stave off an Anaheim revolt this fall.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano