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“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.
Not all Unite Here members participated. Rosario Hernandez is a shift leader in the Grand Californian’s custodial department, in which she has worked since 2003. “Disney takes care of us,” she says. “They even have stores with discounts for cast members. “And for our ‘leaders’ to put us against them is unjust. They worry about politics when they should worry about us. They’re playing with our salaries and our lives. None of the workers I know here joined those protests. They’re like a circus.”
“We wish they would put the same energy into trying to come to an agreement as they have into protesting,” Brown remarks.
Behind the scenes, the two sides have barely spoken. Unite Here members overwhelmingly voted down one Disney contract offer in the summer of 2009 by a margin of 92 percent. The last negotiating session was late last year. Even a federal mediator brought in at Disney’s insistence did little to bridge the gap. Asked why Unite Here hasn’t met more often with Disney, Briceño says, “We’re way too far off. There’s no middle ground. We’re so far apart on so many distinct issues it’s hard for us to say if we have five more sessions, we can get there.”
Disney didn’t bother stating its case to the public like Unite Here, outside of media interviews with Brown and other Disney spokespeople. “We don’t talk about negotiations in public, and that’s what we’ve done all along,” Brown offers. Instead, it tried to divide Unite Here’s leaders from its rank-and-file by mailing accusatory fliers and letters to their households and posting the propaganda in break rooms.
In one flier sent in early 2009 that was obtained by the Weekly, Disney claimed that Local 11 “leadership” wasn’t allowing its wards to vote on the contract management proposed. “How Much Money Have YOU Missed Out On?” the flier asked before offering a number: $504, with a Byzantine explanation about how that amount was arrived at. “Every day Local 11 Leadership denied you the chance to vote, it cost you money. . . . The sooner a contract is approved, the sooner you can start receiving the pay raise you deserve!”
Another glossy promised a $1,000 bonus if a contract was agreed to by June 30, 2009, but featured a stopwatch in the background and warned time was running out. “Only you can ask Local 11 Leadership to let you approve the contract,” it stated. Other fliers tried to portray the hotel union as outside the Disney family. On April 29, workers received a letter purporting to pass itself off as a newspaper. Under the 36-point headline “BREAKING NEWS,” the memo shared that 13 other unions had just negotiated a contract that called for pay raises for more than 1,100 Disneyland Resort staffers.
“Unfortunately,” the flier continued, “Unite HERE Local 11 Cast Members have been without a contract for more than two years [underlined in the original] despite Disney’s fair contract offer that included pay raises, bonuses, paid sick leave and affordable health care.”
Brown explains, “We wanted to ensure that the Local 11 membership knew what the offers were and where we were with the negotiations because we weren’t sure they were getting that information from the leadership.” Asked to clarify, she responds, “We want to ensure that they get the correct information.”