Re-living the Great Disneyland Cast Member Strike of September 1984
This week's feature story, "David Koenig Has Exposed the Disneyland Secrets Mickey Doesn't Want You to Know About," mentions how much the September 1984 strike by cast members was a gut punch to employee morale, resulting in many of the stories that turn up in the author's books.
Sitting down with Koenig was a chance to re-live the 22-day strike that found me at the time actually sympathizing with the company I had otherwise cursed for making me continually cut my hair.
Although my title was "Attractions Host" and my official work area was Main Street in the early 1980s, I actually donned the bright yellow and orange, button-up shirt--that is, yellow on one half, orange on the other--in the Anaheim theme park's vast parking lot (a.k.a. The Original Carsland). This was long before Disney's California Adventure was plopped over it and a parking structure with its own freeway on-ramp was envisioned.
As a seasonal part-time cast member, I earned maybe 10 cents more per hour than minimum wage ($3.10). That had me working full-time hours during the summer, winter and spring breaks from school with some occasional shifts sprinkled in other times of the year.
Permanent part-timers performing the same duties as me earned $7 to $10 an hour. That may not sound lavish now, but it was approximately the same wage scale for supermarket workers, who were considered quite highly paid for arguably menial work. Like supermarket clerks at the time, permanent part-timers were unionized, so they also received benefits. Seasonals did not even though we had to pay union dues.
A couple years after I left the company for my first daily newspaper gig, Disney entered negotiations seeking a 17 percent wage cut for 1,800 cast members from the United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Bakery and Confectionery Workers and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
Keep in mind the Disneyland of 1984 was beset by financial problems stemming from a three-year dip in attendance, including a sharp drop during that year's Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This was also pre-Pixar, when Disney was churning out duds in the theaters as opposed to today's hugely popular movies like Frozen that are parlayed into rides, toys and clothing that pack families into the park. Oh yeah, and there was only one park.
Later in negotiations, a three-year pay freeze was offered to the five unions. The company left the negotiating table the week before the strike started, when workers rejected a two-year pay freeze with a provision where certain benefits would be maintained for current employees but not for new hires. A union spokesman explained the strike was aimed at getting Disney to resume talks.
Cast members from Attractions, Foods, Merchandise and Custodial--including some of my former parking lot colleagues--walked a picket line in front of "The Happiest Place on Earth" on Sept. 26, 1984. Supervisors filled in for cashiers, janitors and ride operators for what was the third and largest labor strike since Disneyland opened in 1955.
I remember how brokenhearted people I knew who still worked there were because of the strike. Many were proud "Disneyphiles" who loved that joint like no other. You got the idea these Mousketeers were already filling the Walt Disney Co. coffers with 17 percent of their paychecks in one way or another.
My memory is the final settlement included no cuts in pay or benefits for existing union members but new hires would come in with lower pay and no or few benefits. Or am I confusing that with my buddy the supermarket clerks after his union was busted?