If Disneyland is Orange County’s ultimate paean to wholesome leisure, a place Walt Disney famously described as “this happy place” upon introducing his theme park to the world in 1955, then the nearby Grand Californian Hotel is the company’s Cathedral of Happy.
It’s like an orange-crate label come to life, re-creating a Golden State long-gone and never really in existence the minute people enter, its 750 rooms squeezed together so the sprawling resort seems as comfy as the Craftsman-era lodgings it mimics, from the wooden crossbeams that soar above the heads of guests to the giant stained-glass sliding doors at the entrance. On a recent Friday night, the Grand Californian’s massive lobby buzzed with happy: foreign tourists who packed too many suitcases and local couples checking in for a romantic weekend; convention-goers calling it a night; and day-trippers taking a break to stroll through the hotel and gaze at this ornate Fantasyland they’ll never be able to afford.
Everywhere one turned were Disney’s so-called cast members, the work force that famously dives into mundane tasks with the enthusiasm of a tween riding the Matterhorn for the fifth time in a day. From the saucy British woman at the bar in the award-winning Napa Rose restaurant to servers in the Storytellers Café lugging plates, from parking attendants dressed in newsboy caps and vests to the janitor who speaks English as a second language, the Grand Californian’s team was a model of efficiency and cheer, seamlessly engaging with guests while doing its assigned duties.
“Is your favorite ride Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters?” one tall, mid-30s receptionist asked a young girl, the roar of the nearby California Screamin’ roller coaster audible in the dusk. “Awesome! That’s mine, too!” They bumped fists.
Everything is obsessively, just-so perfect—except for two double doors.
Just a couple of steps outside the Grand Californian’s lobby, two doors marked “CAST MEMBERS ONLY” stand in a nook. About every five minutes—sometimes more often—someone would open the doors to enter or exit, unleashing a blinding halogen light at odds with the amber hues favored by the Grand Californian. By this time, the smiles had faded, and a new look stretched across these off-the-clock faces: fatigue.
It’s not just the Great Recession weighing on the workers, all of whom belong to Unite Here Local 11, the union that represents the Disneyland Resort’s 2,100-plus hotel employees. For the past two years, the Grand Californian’s staff and their colleagues at the Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels have labored without a contract, costing them pay raises and a sense of security. It’s been a conscious decision on their part: They’ve spurned Disney’s offers, claiming the company wants to eradicate their health benefits and raises while increasing their workload. Many of those same happy cast members who so assiduously help Disney guests while on the clock have publicly called the Mouse a louse through protests, hunger strikes, fliers, blogs and YouTube clips. Disney, in turn, is dismissing the union as ungrateful, its leadership as troublemaking, furious that it dares to introduce class conflict into the Happiest Place on Earth—and maintaining Disney must eliminate Unite Here’s health plan in order to save it.
The hotel workers understand the enormity of their stand-off—it’s Disneyland, for chrissakes.
“The world thinks we should go to hell for taking on Disney,” says Eddie Chavez, a bellman at the Disneyland Hotel for nearly 24 years. “That’s okay. We need to do what we need to do to survive.”
* * *
Glynndana Shevlin has a name reminiscent of a mid-1960s Disney movie character, as well as the personality to match: cherubic and soft-spoken except when talking about her affinity for all things Disney, at which point she nods in excitement like a bobblehead. She has worked at the resort for 22 years, now in the Disneyland Hotel’s E-Ticket Club, an exclusive concierge lounge for more-affluent guests.
“I have more Disney memorabilia in my house than you can find at a Disney store. I really believed in the Pixie dust,” Shevlian says while sipping from a plastic cup emblazoned with the iconic silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s head. “But I became disillusioned with them. Their public face—which they try so hard to protect—is not the face that we see or deal with on a daily basis.”
Nearly a century of collective experience at Disneyland’s hotels has gathered at the offices of Unite Here Local 11 to blast its employer. If the workplace environment is a dreamscape, the local is cramped and utilitarian: an office suite in the Orange County Labor Center, a drab complex located off the 22 freeway in Garden Grove that serves as the regional headquarters for dozens of unions. They sit around a table; behind them, hundreds of picket signs stick out of containers. “Disney is Unfaithful,” reads one. “Work Shouldn’t Hurt,” reads another. Nearly all of them use Disney’s famous cursive font to illustrate their charges.
Maria Navarro, housecleaner at the Grand Californian for six years, says an increased workload making beds has put her on disability. Christina Sanchez, pastry chef at the Grand Californian and a shop steward, worries about escalating health-insurance rates for her and her daughter. MaryAnn Hegner, bartender at the Disneyland Hotel for 23 years and its first-ever female bartender, has no job: Disney fired her last year because management says she called a colleague an “asshole” in public. Hegner insists it’s because she has been heavily involved in Unite Here, acting as a shop steward for 20 years. Her case is in arbitration.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
* * *
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.’”
She gets up to leave. The Unite Here offices have nearly emptied as the workers return to the Magic Kingdom, another day without any progress. The nearly three-year struggle is weighing on their ranks, members acknowledge, but they remain in good spirits and are confident they’ll win a contract sans Disney’s health-care proposal.
“It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in America,” Maitland says. “What makes this important is that Disney is the symbol of what’s supposed to make America great. But Disney is starting to become the American nightmare. They’re seeking to eliminate the middle class, down to every last drop. That’s why it’s so symbolic. We’re not being unreasonable.”
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This article appeared in print as "Bringing Down the Mouse: Inside the acrimonious, two-and-a-half-years-long—and counting—fight between Disneyland and its hotel workers."