Bernie Sanders Speaks with the Weekly on Disneyland and the Fight for Fair Wages

Sanders speaks! Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Senator Bernie Sanders gave the cause of Disney Resort workers a boost on Saturday when he spoke before a packed audience at the River Arena in Anaheim. The democratic socialist waved his finger while denouncing income inequality during his speech. He also listened attentively to the stories of Disney Resort workers assembled for a panel and offered commentary in between them. Good Jobs Nation live streamed the rally and roundtable discussion to a wider audience across the country. Sanders’ appearance made national headlines and further dramatized the fight to lift workers out of poverty by supporting a local $15 living wage ordinance for taxpayer-subsidized companies in the Anaheim Resort. 

But not all were enthused with the “Feel the Bern” fun. The Disneyland Resort implied Sanders tough talked the Mouse to stay relevant in the headlines. The Republican Party of Orange County took the occasion of his visit to send out a panicked email alert ahead of tomorrow’s primary election. They bemoaned his “parachute” presence in the county that launched the likes of President Ronald Reagan. Chairman Fred Whitaker even called the senator “crazy” while decrying his speaking engagement as one that’d offer an “out-of-touch, socialist platform to Orange County.”

After the rally, the Weekly spoke with Sanders about Disneyland and the fight for fair wages on Saturday while en route to his next event in Carson where he rallied exploited port truck drivers. The senator actually sounded quite rational during the course of our conversation. 

Gabriel San Roman (OC Weekly): How did you first become aware of the poverty Disney Resort workers struggle with, and what compelled you to visit Anaheim to speak with them directly?

Bernie Sanders: Some of the workers and unions were in touch with my office. I see my job as trying to do everything I can to make sure working people in this country receive decent wages and decent benefits. And I will tell you what I heard from the workers up there on the stage with me was absolutely shocking. A profitable corporation like Disney that can afford to pay its CEO a compensation package of $400 million should not be having employees that work seven days a week, who are homeless or do not have food to eat. That is an absolute disgrace and Disney has got to change its ways.

The Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and other local business interests are busy sounding the alarm on what they say Anaheim’s living wage ordinance would do if passed. They claim investors will be driven away from a lucrative tourist economy. What say you?

Based off what I heard in Anaheim, this is not a lucrative economy for working people. It may be a lucrative economy for the large corporations who have their businesses here. In an area where the cost of living is very high, as it is in Anaheim, you have working people who cannot afford housing, cannot afford food, [and] cannot afford transportation. Those wages have got to go up. Look, the big business interests always tell us that it’s great to give tax breaks to the rich, it’s great when CEOs receive exuberant compensation packages but it’s the worst thing in the world when workers get decent wages. I think very few people believe that nonsense.

The story of Disneyland since the 1984 strike is one of stagnant, and even declining wages while the corporation’s profits have skyrocketed and the price of living in surrounding areas has risen. To me, that mirrors the story of the destruction of the middle class in the United States.

That’s right, Gabriel. You got it. When you heard that woman that was seated right next to me talk about how she has worked with Disney for 30 years, financially today, she’s worse than she was 30 years when she began after 30 years of experience. And your point is exactly right. Wages are benefits have not kept up with inflation. Many of the workers there are doing worse than workers did 30 years ago while this corporation, last year, made $9 billion dollars in profit. This is an exact manifestation of the decline of the American middle class.

Now I know you had some choice words for Bob Iger. The Disneyland Resort released a statement insinuating that your criticisms of the corporation and visit to Anaheim were done to keep you in the headlines rather than out of a general concerns for its workers. What’s your response?

Well, I’ll tell you what, I think that’s, obviously, nonsense. If they want to make sure that I don’t come back to Anaheim again, they can simply do the right thing and that is pay their workers a living wage and provide decent health care benefits to their employees so they won’t see me back here. But instead of attacking me, they should listen. I know that Disney is very much into media. I would hope very much that somebody gives them a tape of the workers who spoke. They don’t have to worry about Bernie Sanders. They ought to worry about those five or six workers who talked about being homeless, talked about working seven days a week, talked about not having enough time off to sleep, [and] talked about being hungry. Those are the people they should be paying attention to.

Prior to your visit to Anaheim, the Disneyland Resort did something interesting. In negotiations with four unions, they offered a third of its overall workforce a $15 minimum raise wage by 2020. We don’t know all the terms of that offer, but doesn’t that signal at the surface level that this is a corporation that could’ve always afforded to give its workers a decent wage?

Look, I respond to that by saying it is clear that virtually all of the employees here in Disneyland are underpaid with inadequate benefits. I strongly support the ballot item and I also strongly support the union efforts to sit down and negotiate a good contract with Disney. My hope is that Disney will sit down at the table with the unions and come up with a contract that benefits all of the employees here.

The bottom line is you have an immensely profitably corporation that gets tax breaks from Anaheim, that recently got $1.5 billion in tax breaks from the federal government, that pays its CEO, over a four-year period, $400 million in compensation and made $9 billion in profits last year. This is a corporation that can afford to pay every worker in Disney a living wage and I certainly hope they will do that.

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