Disneyland in Europe

Class Struggle in the Magic Kingdom: 35 Years Since the 1984 Disneyland Strike

Disney theme parks around the world are destinations promising fun, enchantment, and adventure. The millions of visitors and ever-expanding offerings would seem to indicate that these promises are effortlessly fulfilled. However, most visitors and promotional materials omit the small detail that there is a veritable army of workers who make the magic come alive. Disney World in Orlando is the largest non-military single-site employer in the United States, employing 70,000 people. Similar parks in Anaheim, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong employ tens of thousands more.

Disney theme park workers bring dreams to life for millions of people every year. They bend over backward to help make people’s family vacations the trip of a lifetime. They enjoy bringing smiles to the faces of children and adults alike. Disney’s workers are the reason it was named the No. 1 best-regarded company by Forbes in 2018.

But maintaining this image comes at the cost of nightmarish working conditions. It is not uncommon for workers to be assaulted, injured, or even killed on the job. Disney does a good job hiding the overall statistics of workplace injuries at its parks and regularly pays fines to OSHA for failing to report injuries and deaths properly. As one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, with an estimated net worth of $130 billion, it can easily afford to pay such piddling amounts.

Disneyland Worker Minnie Mouse
Disney theme park workers have to endure nightmarish working conditions. / Image: chris.alcoran, Flickr

In addition to the physical dangers, Disney does a great job of hiding the immense poverty endured by many of its employees. The wage for a worker who dresses up as a Disney character in the scorching Florida sun starts at just $8.20 per hour. Many Disney workers are unable to afford a place to rent on their wages. One worker died sleeping in her car because her wages left her homeless. At the same time, Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, recently received a $423 million bonus.

Even Disney heiress Abigail Disney has denounced the outrageous state of affairs at her grandfather’s company after a recent visit:

Every single one of [the Disneyland employees] I talked to were saying, “I don’t know how I can maintain this face of joy and warmth when I have to go home and forage for food in other people’s garbage.” I was so livid when I came out of there because, you know, my grandfather taught me to revere these people that take your tickets, that pour your soda. Those people are much of the recipe for success.

The contradictions of capitalism cannot be escaped, no matter how “magical” the workplace appears to be. And these contradictions eventually find a political and organizational expression.

The 1984 Disneyland strike

While not the largest or most important strike in history, the 1984 Disneyland strike in Anaheim, California nonetheless provides an important political lesson—it showed that even one of the most iconic staples of American capitalism could not evade the collective power of the workers.

In the early 1980s, the Disney company was losing money in every one of its sectors. Theme park attendance dropped, and its movies were not making the blockbuster money they are known for today. Corporate raiders sought to seize Disney’s assets and sell them off. They took many measures to reduce costs, and that meant pushing austerity onto the workers.

In September of 1984, the Disney company tried to negotiate a 17% pay cut for 18,000 employees across various unions. The unions unanimously rejected that plan, and the company countered with a wage freeze and reductions in benefits. A five-union coalition representing the theme park’s workers—from ride operators to custodians—all rejected Disneyland’s attacks on living standards. The contracts expired, and on September 25, the largest strike Disneyland has ever seen began.

Dubbing themselves “The Friendliest Strike on Earth,” 2,000 employees walked off the job and blocked the Disneyland park at strategic points. Disney secured a court injunction to stop the picket line and resumed operations with office workers and management scabbing the park workers. About 3,200 temporary scabs also crossed the picket line.

Management wrote a letter to the workers threatening the strikers with termination, but this only emboldened them further. One hundred twenty workers defied the injunction and picketed the front gates. Anaheim police arrested six union officials who defied their orders. The arrested union members filed an $18 million lawsuit against Disney, and the tactics turned more militant. Some workers began leafleting inside the park, and a demonstration was planned outside the general manager’s house. The growing pressure forced management back to the negotiating table.

Disneyland in 1984
In 1984, 2,000 employees walked off the job and blocked the Disneyland park at strategic points. / Image: Ron Firestein, Flickr

The strike ended on October 16, just 22 days after it started, and cannot truly be seen as a victory. The workers did not see their wages increase and Disneyland management got the wage freeze it wanted from the beginning, only conceding to continue benefits for all those working a minimum of 20 hours a week. All strikers did have their positions reinstated, but the scabs hired during the strike also kept their jobs. Following the return to work, there were tensions between the scabs and the strikers. Nonetheless, those workers who struck for the full 22 days did have a sense of camaraderie and referred to themselves as members of “Club 22,” ironically alluding to “Club 33,” Disneyland’s exclusive club for the wealthy.

The myth of “Uncle Walt”

During the strike, some of the workers held a vigil for “Walt Disney’s vision.” They viewed him as Disneyland’s founding father and argued that the attacks on workers represented a turn away from his original vision. This is an image still nurtured by the company today. This historically revisionist depiction of Walt Disney—as a kind-hearted man only wanting the best for everyone—was recently presented in the film Saving Mr. Banks.

The myth that Walt Disney was a kindly father to all was carefully calculated public relations. Labor disputes were common when Disney himself stood at the helm of the company. As an example, the 1941 Disney animators’ strike resulted in Walt Disney getting into a fistfight with the president of the Animator’s Guild, Art Babbitt. Walt Disney testified for Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in a bid to get several former employees arrested for being communists. Most of those named were merely trying to unionize. Walt Disney blamed communism for the 1941 strike and blacklisted union activists.

But it is even more sinister than that. According to Art Babbitt, who worked closely with Disney before their falling out, Disney was a regular at meetings of the German American Bund—the American Nazi Party:

In the immediate years before we entered the War there was a small, but fiercely loyal, I suppose legal, following of the Nazi party… There were open meetings, anybody could attend, and I wanted to see what was going on myself. On more than one occasion, I observed Walt Disney and Gunther Lessing [Disney’s lawyer] there, along with a lot of prominent Nazi-afflicted Hollywood personalities. Disney was going to these meetings all the time.

Disney also personally hosted Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in 1938, just weeks after the Kristallnacht. Disney gave her a grand tour of his studio, and Riefenstahl commented that it was “gratifying to learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”

Walt Disney Statue
The myth that Walt Disney was a kindly father to all was carefully calculated public relations. / Image: Paul Beattie, Flickr

The Disney workers’ struggle today

Like Coca-Cola, Disney is synonymous with capitalism. Like all major capitalist conglomerates, it has its tentacles in every corner of the planet. It is the parent corporation of ABC, ESPN, Disneyland, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 21st Century Fox. However, the struggle against Disney’s labor practices has also spread around the world. Even in China, when Shanghai Disney opened, workers at Disney toy factories protested the low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions.

Just last year, Disney parks workers in Orlando and Anaheim secured an increase to $15 an hour over three years. However, by the time that is fully implemented, the rising cost of living will likely outstrip the higher wage. And given the record-breaking attendance and profits Disney is making, $15 is an infinitesimal percentage of the actual value created by these workers. As an example, ticket prices have increased between 350–450%, adjusted for inflation, since the park first opened in 1955. This once-staple of a working-class vacation is no longer affordable to most workers—including Disney’s own employees.

The reality is that the Disney empire is very much a product of the postwar boom. The brief period of the 1950s and 60s offered a relatively higher quality of life than today, with housing, healthcare, and even a Disney vacation being a staple of the typical American lifestyle. The relatively stable wages of the Disney employees and lack of cuts at that time was due to the unprecedented economic growth connected with global postwar reconstruction.

While the reformists look back to this period with rose-colored glasses, the conditions for such an economic expansion no longer exist. The 1984 strike should, therefore, be seen not as the largest strike in the history of the Disney company, but as the largest so far. Thirty-five years later, conditions are much worse, and the workers will have no choice but to mobilize at a certain stage.

The 1984 Disneyland strike shows that the class struggle is ongoing anywhere and everywhere workers are being exploited. But it also provides a crucial lesson on the need for revolutionary leadership. The union leaders were unwilling to go all the way, for example, by mobilizing the strikers en masse to defy the anti-picketing injunctions. The workers’ best hope was to win solidarity from the broader labor movement in Anaheim and the greater Los Angeles region.

Today, Disney workers’ demands must go beyond pay raises over time. They have enormous power in their hands if they decide to withhold their labor. Ultimately, Disney needs to be nationalized, and its workers must control and manage their workplaces democratically. By appealing to the broader working class with the promise of quality entertainment at dramatically reduced prices, they can help make the entire planet “the happiest place on earth.”

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