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

But the Disney fliers had the opposite effect. “They made us more of a family,” MaryAnn Hegner says with a laugh. “We all laughed at them. We’re more committed than ever.”

Unite Here responded with its own fliers, some more ingenious than others. One, distributed outside Angels Stadium before the start of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, bore the headline “Anaheim’s Black Eye” alongside an illustration of a frowning Mickey sporting a massive shiner.

“Anaheim tourism workers should be proud to host All-Star weekend, but Disney’s greed is spoiling all the fun,” it read, listing the company’s purported sins against them.

Trevor Keen
Glynndana Sherlin, hostess at the Disneyland Hotel's E-Ticket Club, dressed up for protests
John Gilhooley
Glynndana Sherlin, hostess at the Disneyland Hotel's E-Ticket Club, dressed up for protests

Another told Hegner’s story under the headline “WTF Disney!” with the acronym standing for “Work Toward Fairness” instead of the more common epithet. After telling her story, it concludes, “Who the heck fires a little ol’ bartending grandmother after 20-plus years of service for a supposed slip of the tongue??! The whole thing has left folks saying . . . Disney, WTF!”

Earlier this spring, Unite Here even sent a letter to the organizers of Comic-Con, the massively successful annual convention of all things geek. Internet rumors claimed the festival was looking to relocate from San Diego to the Anaheim Convention Center, one of the largest on the West Coast.

“Local 11 has no position on whether or not Comic-Con should stay in San Diego or move to Los Angeles,” wrote Unite Here Local 11 president Tom Walsh. “We do, however, have very serious concerns about Comic-Con being moved to Anaheim. If you choose to do so, you could find your future events caught in the middle of a bitter labor dispute that could jeopardize their success.”

That move infuriated Cynthia Ward. She’s a longtime Anaheim resident, former head of the Anaheim Historical Society, leader of the Anaheim Colony Historic District residential group and a Disney fanatic. Ward and other major Anaheim movers and shakers—a shortlist included current Mayor Curt Pringle, Orange County Business Council President Lucy Dunn and local business leaders—formed Fight for Anaheim Jobs and earlier this year took the cause public on the Red County blog, to which Ward contributes.

“As a community, we have respected Local 11’s right to protest,” read a letter posted on its website. “However, when their actions adversely impact the livelihood of workers, sustainability of local businesses and funding for city services, we must speak out.”

“On some level, every community is a company town, and in Anaheim, we don’t send our men and boys into a coal mine,” Ward says. “Unite Here’s tactics negatively impact the vacations of our visitors, whose dollars make our city run.” She scoffs at the union’s demands for health care, noting, “Benefits are being cut for everyone. For anyone to think they’re going to be insulated from that, they’re not going to be reality-based.

“These people consistently shoot themselves in the foot and somehow through the pain have the presence to reload and fire again,” she concludes. “When I see them shutting down streets, that makes the community look foolish—and that’s not a way to get the community behind you.”

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Eric Altman knows a great labor fight when he sees one. For 15 years, he worked for HERE and Unite Here in Los Angeles, and he helped the union not only employ in-your-face protests during contract negotiations, but also win face-off after face-off. He’s now executive director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), which works with Orange County neighborhoods to try to forge community-benefits agreements with developers, and is following the Unite Here-Disney standoff closely—not least because OCCORD’s offices are next door to Unite Here and the union also helped to found his organization.

“Orange County isn’t Los Angeles, and what worked up there doesn’t necessarily work down here,” Altman admits. But he doesn’t believe Local 11’s tactics have hurt its cause. “ [Unite Here’s] tactics have been used not just by the labor movement, but by social movements for decades. They don’t backfire at all. It’s what people need to do when their livelihood is at stake and their issues need to addressed. It’ll work.”

Disney also feels “optimistic that we’ll be able to come to a resolution,” Brown says. “This is the only union that we haven’t been able to have a resolution with recently. I don’t know why. Disney has a long history of positive relationships with our unions. We are able to work with unions and successfully negotiate with contracts. [Unite Here] is certainly the exception to the rule.”

Meanwhile, all that the Unite Here members can do is show up to the job. “We try to keep their concept that the guest is No. 1,” Shevlian says. “A guest once told me during a work stoppage that they keep coming back because of the treatment. ‘Mickey Mouse doesn’t serve my bagel,’ he said. ‘You do.’”

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