Disneyland custodian Al Ramos came back from vacation in September 1984 with no work to return to, save for walking the picket line outside his job. The company wanted a two-year wage freeze, no health-insurance benefits for part-time workers and the freedom to outsource jobs. Members of a five-union coalition representing the theme park’s custodians, ticket sellers, ride operators, sales clerks and warehouse workers soundly rejected Disneyland’s final contract offer.
Nearly 2,000 cast members, as Disney calls its employees, hit the Magic Kingdom with the largest strike in its history. “I was completely positive about being on strike,” recalls Ramos, who’s currently coming up on 47 years of employment. “That first week, workers were determined to show the company that we were serious.”
Lasting 22 days, the strike proved to be a turning point. Disneyland has expanded in the years since, adding California Adventure, Downtown Disney and high-end hotels to its resort. But as Orange County’s largest employer, it also no longer provides jobs that allow most workers to join OC’s middle class. And it’s not just the rising cost of living in the county that accounts for the change. According to a survey released in February by Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable, nearly half of the resort’s workforce is now part-time and wages have declined.
Back in ’84, Disneyland pointed to its own survey showing workers making more than its theme-park counterparts while attendance declined at the House of the Mouse. The coalition comprised Teamsters Local 88, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, Bakery and Confectionery Workers Local 66, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 681, and SEIU Local 399. It didn’t like Disneyland’s final two offers but urged ratification anyway. Only, the membership didn’t just vote no—but rather hell no! “There wasn’t a sufficient [strike] plan because the leaders of the union were caught off guard,” says David Stilwell, a senior organizer with SEIU Local 399 at the time. “All of that had to be constructed at midnight going forward from the strike vote.”
When time came to walk off the job on Sept. 25, 1984, each union set up its own picket line at strategic points surrounding the park. One-third of the theme park’s workforce brought all their cast member geniality and even dubbed themselves “The Friendliest Strike On Earth.” Barbs traded between scabs crossing the line and strikers accounted for the only outward sign of tension. Disneyland prepared itself by training office workers how to operate rides and fulfill other duties; the company insisted the crowds turned out in comparable numbers throughout.
But with union banners held outside the property reading, “Please go to Knott’s Berry Farm today, thank you,” Disney responded by filing a $250,000 lawsuit that eventually secured a temporary picket ban. Outside of court, it reported to local press that hundreds already crossed the line. The unions responded by changing tactics, as striking workers gained morale and more media exposure. “It saddens me to stand outside something I love and wave a picket sign,” Terry Stacey, a ride operator, told the Register at the time. “But I’m doing this for future park employees. I’m trying to protect their chance to work in a special place.”
Nearly 2,000 striking workers held a candlelight vigil outside the theme park in an effort to dramatize the company’s cutthroat turn away from its founding father, a point proven by Disneyland president Dick Nunis sending ultimatum letters just hours before, warning workers to return to work by midweek or be replaced.
“It was a threatening letter that made me even angrier,” Ramos says. “I was bound and determined to stay out. I wasn’t going to be threatened or intimidated.”
The time for peaceful vigils ended. Defying the picket ban on Disneyland’s property, 120 workers marched right up to the front gates for an hour-long demonstration. Anaheim police arrested six union officials who refused to leave. Later that night, 1,000 workers celebrated when the state Supreme Court temporarily lifted the picket ban on appeal. The very next day, hundreds took to the gates to rip up Nunis’ letters. Arrested union officials acted with a headline-grabbing $18 million lawsuit against Disneyland.
But for all the action outside the park, a stealth operation inside proved most efficient. “We had operatives go into the park who started pamphleting people on Main Street,” Stilwell recalls. “You saw fear in management’s eyes for the first time. Even though our ranks were shrinking, we were getting more militant.” The Mouse booted the leafleters out while thumbing through thousands of job applications that came after the ultimatum passed. The next day, unions readied for a residential picket of Nunis’ waterfront home in Laguna Beach. Word of the impending action got back to Disney officials, and both sides suddenly returned to the negotiating table.
The majority of members voted to approve the new contract, ending the strike on Oct. 16, Ramos’ 31st birthday. The unions didn’t get the two-year contract they sought, which included 3 percent to 8 percent raises. While Disneyland won a two-year wage freeze, it conceded to keeping health benefits for part-time and seasonal workers—provided they worked 20 hours over five-day schedules. The park also agreed to limit outsourcing to 10 percent for union work.
“We were happy to go back to work, but the tension that was in the park between the people that crossed the line and those that stayed out was very extreme,” Ramos says. Stilwell recalls fistfights, ones that got former strikers fired more often than scabs. The bad blood lingered for well more than five years, but it was far from being the sole aftermath of the strike. Workers ended their paternalistic relationship with management; tokens of worker appreciation quickly disappeared. Over time, scabs were promoted to management positions.
“We had a lot of cast members quit,” Ramos says. “They just couldn’t take it anymore.” Relations only began to thaw between management and workers around the mid-2000s. The only visible signs of labor strife afterward happened at the Disneyland Hotel, then-owned by Wrather Corporation. Landscapers there went out on strike in ’85, followed by months of “striking on the job” by HERE Local 681 workers the following year. Cesar Chavez visited to walk the picket line in support of the latter dispute.
All the while, Disneyland kept chipping away, contract after contract, at benefits unions secured for their workers. Coincidentally, the ’84 strike began on Michael Eisners’ first day as CEO of Walt Disney Productions, Disneyland’s parent company, a tenure that helped transform the corporation into the empire it is today. “The park’s economic fortunes improved after that, but the percentage of the wealth shared with the workers kept shrinking,” Stilwell says. “Disney’s solution to the strike was to get rid of as many full-time positions as possible.”
And the company never had to face a united front again until the nine-member, local Coalition of Resort Labor Unions (CRLU) formed in 2016. “Either we hang together or we hang separately,” Stilwell says, having helped to lay the groundwork before retiring last year. “I’m surprised, frankly, with the progress we’ve made.”
The new coalition’s strategy came in the form of a survey, not a strike. But not all are on board. Teamsters Local 495, whose previous iteration formed part of the ’84 strike coalition, opted not to join the effort. Frustrated with contract offers of pitiful wage increases, the CRLU commissioned the study of Disneyland Resort workers in October. The harrowing portrait of Disney’s working poor struggling with declining wages, food insecurity and even homelessness made international headlines when it was released during a Feb. 28 town hall.
The findings proved to be a prelude for a $15 living-wage ordinance for taxpayer-subsidized companies in the Anaheim Resort. It’ll appear on the city’s ballot this November if enough qualifying signatures are gathered. Ramos, who owns a condo in Anaheim, plans to vote in favor of it. The 65-year-old custodian admits to being a bit disillusioned, though, with all he’s seen.
“A strike will never happen again at Disneyland,” Ramos says. “The cast members are the union. If the cast members aren’t strong, then the union isn’t strong, and the company knows that.”
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.