Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions at the River Church arena in Anaheim on June 2 to champion the group’s fight for the Walt Disney Co. to pay higher wages.
The coalition is seeking a minimum hourly rate of $15, effective Jan. 1, 2019, with a $1 increase each subsequent January until 2022.
In an effort to circumvent an apparent stalemate in negotiations, the coalition has collected over 20,000 signatures, which must be verified by the Orange County Registrar of Voters by June 14, in order for the wage increase measure to appear on November’s election ballot.
A BBC report stated that last year Disney had a net income of $9 billion, and this year, it had performed higher than expected with $2.9 billion by March.
The company also benefits from President Trump’s tax overhaul, which reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, as well as the tax break given to it in 2016, by the Anaheim City Council — for the purpose of building a luxury hotel — which the L.A. Times reported will save Disneyland around $267 million over the next 20 years.
Suzi Brown, Disneyland Resort’s vice president of communications, said in a statement that the company is “making an initial $50 million investment and an ongoing annual investment of up to $25 million a year in tuition support.”
As a result of the recent tax breaks, Walt Disney Co. had announced it would provide $1,000 bonuses to around 125,000 of its full- and part-time employees currently working under existing union contracts for a cost of $125 million.
According to Eric Clinton, president of a Unite Here union chapter representing Disney employees in Orlando, Fla., the company has withheld tens of thousands of the promised bonuses pending the resolution of contract negotiations, according to a Bloomberg report.
Disney’s current offer is an immediate increase from an $11 entry-level hourly wage to $13.25, with an increase to $15 by the year 2020. The coalition has contended that the figures do not adequately address the needs of many of Disney’s unionized workers.
According to a survey conducted by Occidental College’s Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and Los Angeles’s nonprofit research organization the Economic Roundtable, 73% of Disney employee respondents said they can’t afford basic living expenses such as food, gas and rent, and 11% said they have been homeless or without their own home within the last two years.
Various Anaheim business groups who would be affected by the wage increase are working with Disney to oppose the proposed ordinance.
Todd Ament, chief executive of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the coalition of business groups in opposition to the measure, characterized the initiative as a “job killer,” saying it would harm local businesses and negatively impact future development.
Sanders joined around 1,500 people — mostly unionized Disneyland and Disney Resort employees who are members of the 13 unions of the coalition — at the rally.
Attendees took selfies with a person dressed as Mickey Mouse, while holding signs reading “#StopDisneyPoverty” and “#ImDisneyland.” A band of young Disney employees and former employees performed for the group.
Chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” and “When we fight, we win!” filled the arena until Sanders, moderator Jennifer Muir Beuthin, general manager of Orange County Employees Assn., and Dan Flaming, Economic Roundtable president and co-author of the survey, joined seven Disney employees onstage.
Sanders criticized Disney CEO Bob Iger for earning a nine-figure salary, while many employees lived in their cars.
He contended that the company was easily within its means to pay all its employees a living wage.
“[Disney talks] about being a family-oriented company, well, we’ve got families right here,” Sanders said.
“What we are saying is that at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when so many people are struggling to put food on the table, to get health care, or affordable housing, Disney can lead this country in ending the type of corporate greed which is causing so much pain from coast to coast.”
After the Vermont senator’s speech, each panelist, who represented a cross-section of Disney park and resort departments, detailed hardships such as having been homeless, being financially unable to start families and working seven days a week at multiple jobs.
Glynndana Shevlin, a 58-year-old food and beverage concierge has been a Disney employee for 30 years. When she first started, Disney provided free meals, free healthcare and more benefits, she said.
Over time, she said, the company decreased its employee benefits and that its wages have not kept up with inflation.
“I’ve been evicted twice in the last five years, I go hungry most days on one meal, [and] I can’t afford the rent to live in an apartment by myself —I make $15.70 an hour,” Shevlin said.
Brown and Ament’s offices provided statements from their Coalition of Union Workers, Business Leaders & Residents, criticizing Sanders and labeling the wage increase initiative as a threat.
“It is unfortunate that Senator Bernie Sanders is taking part in a well-orchestrated stunt by radical activists to promote an initiative that would cost Anaheim thousands of skilled jobs and millions in tax revenue for public safety and neighborhoods,” said Anaheim City Councilman Kris Murray in a statement. “Their rhetoric will not convince Anaheim residents to support an initiative that permanently harms our city and local economy.”
Scott Feinblatt is a contributor to Times Community News.