How Last Year’s Fight for $15 at Disney Compares With the ’84 Strike [Alt-Disney]

The ballot or the picket? Photo illustration by Federico Medina

For all the pickets, the Disneyland strike of 1984 ended without higher wages for workers. They returned to the park after ratifying a contract on Oct. 16 that included the Mouse House’s desired two-year wage freeze. Walking off the job for three weeks wasn’t entirely in vain, though; unions gained a concession from Disney to maintain benefits for existing workers. 

Bitter feelings about scabs and management also broke the spell of paternalism that took ahold of workers—another victory for union organizers. 

The attitude shift continued to influence a new generation. Gylnndana Shevlin started at the Disneyland Hotel in 1988, just as the company acquired it from Wrather Corp. She recalls meeting a shop steward named Betty Findley with Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 681 (now Unite Here Local 11). 

Findley had worked for Wrather in ’84 but belonged to the same union that went out on strike at Disneyland. As with other hotel workers, she picketed in support and imparted that same fighting spirit to a young Shevlin when revving up for their first contract battle with Disney. “She was always talking to me about how we had to stand up for our rights,” Shevlin says. “I wanted to be her!” 

Shevlin got her chance during last year’s living-wage campaign. By 2016, several Disney labor unions felt they needed to band together and formed a coalition. They commissioned a study on Disney-worker poverty and launched a living-wage ballot campaign in 2018. Workers such as Shevlin openly shared their hardships. 

Measure L passed in November, but Disney found a way out by having subsidy triggers canceled. Still, the campaign provided the leverage necessary to gain $15-per-hour minimum wages at the negotiating table before and after the ballot. 

In a better position, Disneyland workers had everything to lose in ’84. By 2018, they had everything to gain. Even though tactics differed, the spirit remained the same. 

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