Anaheim Dissolves Disney Subsidies, Declares Peace on Backs of Resort Workers

Disney’s ill-fated luxury hotel. Courtesy Anaheim

An earthquake unexpectedly shook things up at Anaheim city hall during last night’s council meeting. Long after the tremors calmed, council members sought to end rumbles of another sort with the Disneyland Resort over two controversial subsidy agreements. At the Mouse’s request, they unanimously voted to end $267 million in bed-tax subsidies for a planned Disney luxury hotel while at the same time lifting a decades-long entertainment tax ban.

“I want to commend Disney for cancelling these agreements,” said mayor Tom Tait, a crusader against subsidies. “It was, I believe, a serious act of goodwill on their part towards the city. It’s a rare opportunity to set the reset button.” 

Earlier this month, the eight-story, 700-room luxury hotel’s subsidies came into question on the eve of breaking ground on construction. The city argued that since the project plans moved from a parking lot to the west end of Downtown Disney, the bed-tax kickbacks couldn’t apply with the agreement being site-specific. The Mouse initially responded by halting hotel plans indefinitely before Disneyland Resort President Josh D’Amaro sent a letter to city officials requesting they end the subsidy agreement passed in 2016 as it became “divisive.” For good measure, D’Amaro also called for ending a 30-year entertainment tax ban granted to the corporation by a previous council the year before.

If the vote to end tax breaks for Disney heralded improved relations, it also may have provided the Mouse with an escape hatch from a living wage ordinance poised to pass in November. The measure proposes a wage scale that tops at $18 an hour by 2022 for resort area corporations with subsidy agreements like the ones cancelled last night. The Coalition of Resort Labor Unions pushed the effort following a report they commissioned on the economic hardships Disney workers endure. It surged in popularity, especially following a visit from United States Senator Bernie Sanders to rally the cause.

The Weekly obtained opposition polling that revealed Disney headed for a ballot box beatdown, but council members didn’t give any credit to the campaign for changing the corporation’s tune on subsidies. The strong polling numbers remained a great unmentionable from the dais much like omissions from a laughable Register op-ed this week on Disney’s “bold, principled” move by Orange County Business Council president Lucy Dunn. 

Not all bought into the supposed peace treaty between Disney and the council. “I’m rather amused by the positive spin,” said Duane Roberts, a council candidate in District 2, during public comments. “Although I’m sure the primary reason is purely financial, there’s another message they’re trying to send the public, ‘Screw you! You can’t touch us,'” Roberts suggested a new living wage measure emerge for the 2020 elections that’d be applicable to the entire Anaheim resort, without any subsidy provisions.

Bakers and housekeepers from UNITE Here Local 11, a hotel workers union that’s part of the coalition, also made their presence known at council chambers. The mostly Latina workers, dressed in red union shirts and housekeeper uniforms, continued to speak on the economic hardships they face. In July, Disney settled a Master Services Council, bringing up base pay to $15 an hour for thousands of workers belonging to four major unions. But UNITE Here Local 11 is in the midst of embattled contract negotiations and took the occasion to remind the corporation and council of workers left behind.

More than half of the locals that comprise the coalition are either in current negotiations or are under contracts set to expire over the next two years, including thousands represented by Workers United Local 50. 

“I started working for Disney about eight years ago,” said Ana Maria Rodriguez, a housekeeper who makes a little more than $11 an hour and works six days a week. “We deserve a living wage with or without a subsidy. We don’t come here to cause you to feel sorry for us. We are here to wake up your consciousness so that you can see that the magic of Disney has faces and hands.” 

Following Disney’s announcement on ending subsidies, UNITE Here Local 11 criticized the corporation’s latest offer that came a day after, calling it a “PR move.” The union contends that the proposal seeks pay increases that are significantly lower than the living wage scale, severely cuts other employees’ income and comes coupled with a sharp increases in mandatory workloads. Now seemingly bereft of the leverage the living wage campaign brings against Disney, how contract negotiations fare after last night’s vote remain to be seen. A kick-off walk for the ballot initiative is still taking place on Sept. 8 as its provisions certainly remain in play with non-Disney subsidized hotel projects. 

Despite the supposed reset button, council members couldn’t help but quibble over the subsidy agreements one last time before terminating them. “The revenue to the city has been lost,” said councilwoman Lucille Kring. “There is no secret vault. We don’t have the rebate money stashed away somewhere.” She described the moment as a “sad” one for the city, but noted herself a team player ready to accept Disney’s decision. “I think grown-ups move on,” said councilman Jose F. Moreno, criticizing Kring and councilwoman Kris Murray. “They shake hands with folks who’ve said it’s time to come to peace and truce.”

Moreno had kinder words for D’Amaro but suggested Disney pullback from influencing local elections while raising wages for the rest of its workers.  “I’m hopeful that Disney will continue its goodwill to improving not only the relationships in our city but the lives of our residents by finalizing fair contracts for the thousands of remaining employees at the resort,” he said. “They can provide market leadership in our city.” 

Tait expressed optimism in a “new day” for Anaheim, Disney and its workers. “The city is looking to move forward together,” he said. “I probably called for a reset a little too soon. Let’s put it behind us at this point.” Moreno and Murray indulged in one last round of back-and-forth bickering before the unanimous vote. 

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