Disney's Hotel-Workers' Union Is Still Trying to Bring Down the Mouse

After some two-and-a-half years of stalled negotiations and street theater, a new labor deal still seems like Fantasyland

“If they could whip us like in the old days, they would,” jokes Russell Maitland, a scrawny 12-year veteran at the Disneyland Hotel who’s on leave to help the union campaign. He sports a goatee “because I now can.”

“Look, we all love Disney. We want Disney to keep its high quality,” he says. “If Disney was going through hard times, we’d completely understand and even work with Disney. But Disney is posting massive profits. That’s the epitome of greed. If they were asking us to save the company through cuts, that’d be a different story. But they’re earning massive profits. How can they justify their actions toward us?”

It’s early in the day; over the next two hours, workers will get up and leave for their jobs, while others trickle in to tell their tales. But the narrative remains consistent: The Unite Here associates interviewed refuse to sign any contract with Disney until they get what they feel is a fair shake, even if that puts them figuratively outside the company. Of the 31 unions that represent Disney workers, Unite Here—the third-largest in the Disneyland Resort—is the only one without a contract, the only one publicly criticizing the company.

Maria Navarro, housecleaner at the Grand Californian Hotel, dressed up for protests
John Gilhooley
Maria Navarro, housecleaner at the Grand Californian Hotel, dressed up for protests
Ada Briceño, longtime president of the Disneyland Hotel-workers' union and current secretary/treasurer of Unite Here Local 11
John Gilhooley
Ada Briceño, longtime president of the Disneyland Hotel-workers' union and current secretary/treasurer of Unite Here Local 11

That anomalous situation makes those in the conference room feel proud. “We’re the only ones who have stepped up,” says Tom Bray, a bellhop at the Disneyland Hotel for 22 years. “We’re not afraid of a company that everyone is afraid of. We’re the only ones with the balls to fight, and they don’t like that. They’re treating us like the bad child.”

For decades, Disneyland didn’t have to worry about an activist-run hotel. Its namesake hotel opened in 1955 under the ownership of the Wrather Corp., a Beverly Hills-based company that mostly owned media properties such as the Lone Ranger and Muzak. Relations between those owners and the union were “good,” says Ada Briceño, who has helped to organize Disneyland’s hotel workers in one role or another since the early 1990s.

But even in those halcyon days, the union had a reputation for unrest. In 1986, it couldn’t reach a contract agreement with management for 10 months, and the union—then simply HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees) Local 681—called for a boycott of the hotel and arranged massive protests that led to arrests. Even then-vice president George H.W. Bush honored the boycott by canceling a stay, and labor icon Cesar Chavez spoke at a rally. The two sides eventually came to an agreement.

The dynamics changed in 1988, when Disney took over the Disneyland Hotel. HERE’s contract was up for renewal in 1990. After the first round of negotiations, Disney took away free meals, a standard benefit in the hotel industry. More whittlings happened over the next couple of contract negotiations. “We didn’t even call them negotiations; they were dictations,” says Bray, who sat in some of the meetings between the company and HERE.

Jorge Iniestra also points fingers at the former union leadership for cuts in benefits. He has spent 13 years as a bellman at the Disneyland Hotel and was one of 10 individuals who participated in a hunger strike earlier this year outside the Grand Californian that lasted nine days. “In those days, the offices would close at 4:30 in the afternoon,” he says. “You have workers who worked all day, who couldn’t meet with their union representatives until the evening, who couldn’t because people closed up. We were treated as peasants. We didn’t count.”

But a new approach arrived once Briceño assumed the leadership of the union. The tall, soft-spoken but intense Nicaragua native began working in the hotel industry at 17, when she started as a front-desk clerk at the Stovall’s Inn near Disneyland. She joined HERE a year later while at the Sheraton in San Pedro, learning the ins and outs of union organizing before returning to Orange County in 1992 as one of HERE’s organizers at the Disneyland Hotel.

Briceño doesn’t dispute Iniestra’s charge. “When you only have just one or two organizers in charge of more than 2,000 workers, you can understand how difficult it is to take care of everyone,” she says. But she decided to implement a new program upon becoming union president in 2001. It asked the workers to pick among themselves who would receive training so that every shift and every department had a designated leader to watch over colleagues. Those picked, in turn, were involved with HERE’s designated leaders in decision-making. Similar tactics had revolutionized and revitalized unions in Los Angeles.

“After my swearing-in, the general president of our union at the time came to me and said, ‘Here, you make OC go,’” Briceño says. “I saw that the workers were willing to work, but [they] didn’t know how to fight back. We thought, ‘How can we replicate here what had happened in Los Angeles?’ Then, we gave them that opportunity. . . . That was very intimidating for Disney and the hotels. It’s the workers who run our union, not the leaders.”

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