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

With this decentralized mentality, Briceño and her peers negotiated a contract in 2004 that won the union no-cost family health benefits; before, members paid out of their own pockets. She also guided the union through consolidation. In 2004, HERE merged with UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) to create Unite Here; in 2008, Unite Here locals 681 and 11 (which represented Los Angeles County) combined and kept the 11 tag. “We saw the strength,” Briceño says. “We saw corporations merge [and become] bigger and stronger, and we decided to do the same. That’s the only page we’ve taken from their playbook.”

Together, the two locals created a sprawling syndicate that represents around 18,000 to 20,000 hotel workers across Southern California. Those increased numbers meant Briceño and her colleagues began strategizing around a bigger picture as the 2008 contract negotiations with Disney loomed.

Across the United States, labor unions were losing concessions because of the battered economy, while health costs across the country spiraled upward. In response, Disney began asked Unite Here members to leave their health-insurance coverage and join Disney’s Signature Plan, which the company claimed it would control. The company offered to contribute its share into the union’s current health-care trust through 2010 (Disney pays $2.55 per hour for nearly every Unite Here employee), at which point the union had to join the Signature Plan—but pay 75 percent less in premiums than the other Disney unions.

Strategizing at Unite Here's office in Garden Grove
John Gilhooley
Strategizing at Unite Here's office in Garden Grove
Wilfredo Miranda, housekeeper, Paradise Pier Hotel
Wilfredo Miranda, housekeeper, Paradise Pier Hotel

In addition, Disney asked Unite Here to increase the amount of hours needed for people to qualify for health insurance. In response, the union let its contract expire in December 2008. It refused all the new demands. but especially the proposed health-care issue, and also rejected Disney’s offer to extend the contract.

Briceño claims accepting the contract would set a dangerous precedent for the other hotels Unite Here represents, such as the Anaheim Hilton and Sheraton Park. “It’s not fair to compare us to the other Disneyland unions,” Briceño says. “It’s fair to compare us to the hotels we represent, not the resort. We need to keep our industry standards. We represent working families living paycheck to paycheck, even with a union job. What Disney proposes would put some of our families on the streets. If the benefits fall here, they’re going to fall everywhere. We’re not willing to lose what we have.”

Suzi Brown, spokeswoman for the Disneyland Resort, dismisses Briceño’s stance, countering it’s not fair for Unite Here to have a special dispensation for its health coverage. “This is the only union that isn’t on our Signature Plan,” she says. “It has to do with equity. It’s the same plan that cast members in our other 30 unions participate in—66,000 Disney employees nationwide.”

“It’s supposed to be a negotiation, but they are so colossally arrogant they refused to even consider our case,” says Beatriz Silva, organizing director for Unite Here Local 11. “Negotiations are about moving to the middle. We needed to make movements before accepting anything.”

*     *     *

As a child, Julio Perez lived at an address that any American child would envy: across the street from Disneyland, on the west side of Walnut Street in Anaheim. But the neighborhood’s reality quickly sours any rose-tinted nostalgia he might have for the place. The barrio (known as Tijuanita) is one of Orange County’s densest, featuring apartment complex after apartment complex housing almost exclusively service workers employed in and around Disneyland. Perez’s father was a laundryman at the Disneyland Hotel for a decade, yet he had to work a second job to make ends meet.

“My mom used to baby-sit the kids of a lot of Disneyland’s hotel workers,” says the 34-year-old, now the political director for the Orange County Labor Federation, which represents 24 Disney unions and has provided logistical support for Unite Here’s efforts. “What I remember most about Disneyland growing up is people coming back exhausted to pick up their kids.”

Perez remembered those days when, in March 2008, Unite Here approached him with a request. It planned to take it’s contract negotiations public with a massive demonstration that would block the intersection of Harbor Boulevard and Convention Way, just down the street from Disneyland—but it needed people willing to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience. Perez had a clean record but didn’t hesitate.

“I grew up with these folks,” he says. “These were my parent’s comadres y compadres. They’re not just members of Unite Here; they’re part of my family. It was like coming home.”

The towering Perez quietly sat in the middle of the intersection until Anaheim police deputies handcuffed him and dragged him away, along with 27 other protesters. Some were dressed as classic Disney characters—Snow White, Peter Pan—but it was the sight of one protester, dressed in a ratty Mickey Mouse costume while officers led him to a squad car, that made the national wires and became the union’s unofficial mascot.

Thus began more than two years’ worth of Unite Here actions designed to draw attention to its contract dispute. “There’s a time for negotiations and a time to let the public know what’s happening,” Briceño says simply. The union has staged hunger strikes outside Disney’s Burbank headquarters. In February, Rage Against the Machine lead guitarist Tom Morello serenaded a crowd from a flatbed truck near the Disneyland Hotel. A delegation confronted Disney CEO Bob Iger during a shareholder’s meeting this spring. Members have woken up hotel guests at 6 a.m. with strolling mariachis and walked off the job in wildcat strikes. This past winter, they even led a candlelight vigil outside the Grand Californian, asking children to reenact a posada, the Mexican Catholic tradition that recalls Mary and Joseph unsuccessfully looking for lodging in Bethlehem. At nearly all protests, hundreds have joined them—fellow Disneylanders, religious leaders, students, activists, even politicians.

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