Hundreds of Disney Resort workers donning the colorful shirts of their respective unions lined up outside the River Arena in Anaheim hours before a Saturday morning scheduled appearance by United States Senator Bernie Sanders. Inside the venue, hurried organizers spoke on headsets in getting everything ready for the rally and panel discussion before doors opened at 9 a.m. Workers from the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions, who co-sponsored the event alongside Good Jobs Nation and are pushing for a $15 Anaheim Resort living wage ordinance, anxiously awaited their time onstage with Sanders backstage in the green room.
When doors finally opened, streams of people took to the purple seats of the small church arena. Anticipation began to build almost immediately with event organizers keeping the mood jubilant. A mock Mickey Mouse in full uniform posed for pictures and even held a #StopDisneyPoverty sign up for the cameras. Union musicians played through perfectly executed cover songs including Pharrell’s “Happy” and a man tossed yellow United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324 shirts into the crowd.
But ten minutes before the rally’s start time, workers and Sanderistas alike wanted to hear from the man of the hour.
“Bernie Sanders,” the crowd chanted, followed by a baseball clap. “I want to Feel the Bern!” another shouted. Disney workers walked on stage and took to their seats to applause. Suddenly, the 76-year-old independent senator from Vermont appeared, strutting down an aisle towards the stage to a hero’s welcome. “The struggle that you are waging here in Anaheim is not just for you,” Sanders said from the podium. “It is a struggle for millions of workers all across this country who are sick and tired of working longer hours for lower wages!”
Sanders quickly honed in on The Walt Disney Company and its CEO Bob Iger in his stump speech. The senator referenced ABC’s recent cancellation of Roseanne over Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets and noted he respected Iger’s decision, despite the cost to his company. “What I say to Mr. Iger right now, you have the opportunity now to do something else that is enormously important,” Sanders added. “You have the opportunity to help lead corporate America away from the greed which is destroying this country and you have the opportunity to create a company that works for all of its workers.”
Before the Sanders speech, a Disneyland Resort spokeswoman handed out an official press statement on the senator’s visit to reporters at the arena. It referenced the company’s recently announced wage hike proposal for some but not all union workers while throwing shade at Sanders. “We currently are negotiating one of the largest union contracts at the Disneyland Resort, with an offer that increases starting wages of 36 percent over three years, paying $15 an hour by 2020–two years ahead of California’s minimum wage,” the statement read. “While Mr. Sanders continues to criticize Disney to keep himself in the headlines, we continue to support our cast members through investments in wages and education.”
But when the event turned to a panel discussion, Disney Resort workers had a different story to tell Sanders onstage with Orange County Employees Association general manager Jennifer Beuthin serving as moderator. Glynndana Shevlin, a food and beverage concierge at the high-end Disney E-Ticket Club, told the crowd what work life is like closing in on 30 years with the company. “I go hungry most days,” she said. “I work in the most beautiful room in the Adventure Tower at the Disneyland Hotel. I feed these guests the most amazing gourmet food you’ve ever seen and at the end of the day, it gets thrown in a recycle bin.”
A Unite HERE Local 11 shop steward, Shevlin’s wages also have her struggling to keep a steady roof over her head; she’s been evicted numerous times and is currently looking for a new place to stay on a $15.70 an hour salary. Sanders offered Shevlin a consoling touch on the shoulder while delivering his snarkiest and, perhaps, most heartfelt remarks of the event. “Disneyland is all about fantasy,” he said. “Let me break the news for the people watching, ducks don’t talk! Mice really don’t talk. That’s fantasy, this is reality.”
The hour-long rally came to an end soon after. Sanders left the building to chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!’ but casual conversations carried on. “What Disney workers are fighting for is a great example of what can be exported to the federal level,” said Paco Fabián, an organizer with Good Jobs Nation. “What they can do is create momentum and show people workers standing together and pushing for a common goal can create results.” Disney worker solidarity stretches from coast-to-coast. Belinda Hanzman, a housekeeper at the Animal Kingdom Lodge at Walt Disney World for the past seven years, traveled from Orlando, Florida to be at the rally. “We have the same struggle,” she said. “We are very grateful for Sanders’ support. Any person who comes and supports us, we are very grateful for.”
Back in the green room, Rebekah Pederson, a Disney hair and makeup artist, returned from being onstage with Sanders to congratulations and applause. “It’s definitely been quite the experience,” Pederson said. “I’m very proud that I’ve got to be a part of it, of course.” She belongs to International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 706, one of the unions that doesn’t stand to benefit from the publicized pay increases offered by Disney to a few of the Coalition members. But Pederson would see her salary significantly increase to $15 an hour next year and $18 an hour by 2022 should Anaheim voters have the opportunity to pass the living wage ordinance for taxpayer-subsidized companies at the resort. “They’re trying to break the unity,” Pederson said.
With peak tourist season arriving at the Disneyland Resort, the Mouse may also have a historic campaign against its low wages in full swing by summertime whatever contracts are agreed to or not. It’s also a season where worker sign-ins for Disneyland this year are largely blocked out, especially on weekends–or at least were until a day before the Sanders rally. Pederson pulled up an app on her cellphone before looking at the June calendar for sign-ins with astonishment. “Oh my gosh!” she said. “Now that they’re getting called on it, magically I have weekend days that I can go in June!”
Maybe Sanders needs to come to Anaheim more often?
Before heading off to another day at Disneyland making $11.68 an hour, Pederson endorsed the idea. “Oh, I think so,” she said. “He’s definitely made an impact and I like it.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.