Puppeteers bring the magic of Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and friends to life everyday with Disney Junior – Live on Stage at Disney California Adventure Theme Park. Children in the audience sing and dance along throughout the half-hour show that updated in 2013 with Disney Channel characters Sofia the First, Doc McStuffins, and Jake and the Never Land Pirates. But behind the scenes, unionized puppeteers remain locked in an 18-month-long labor dispute, with Disney deciding to pull the plug on the show and its puppets.
“The last day of performance will be April 9, 2017,” wrote Robby Armitage, Talent Casting Director for Disney Parks and Resorts, in a memo. “On behalf of the Disneyland Resort we thank you for your many fine performances, your continued support and professionalism.”
The announcement shocked puppeteers while raising a few eyebrows. “It’s such an interesting, coincidental time frame for all this to happen,” says Ryne Strom, a six-year veteran of the show. Disney Junior – Live on Stage is the sole production work at Disney’s Anaheim theme parks for puppeteers, many of whom stand to lose their only source of income. The company assures that the decision has nothing to do with union contract negotiations and is no different than when Disney’s Aladdin-A Musical Spectacular closed at the park with Frozen-Live at the Hyperion taking its place. “We constantly evaluate our entertainment offerings and make changes to provide compelling reasons for our guests to visit time and time again,” says Suzi Brown, Disney’s Director of Medial Relations and External Communications.
Back in 2015, puppeteers sought changes on the job and started a drive to join the American Guild of Variety Artists with West Coast Representative Steve Rosen’s help. When Disney changed Disney Junior-Live on Stage and introduced new puppets two years before, puppeteers complained of sprains and pains. “The puppets were hard to manipulate with our hands and then the fact that we have to keep them in the air for five to six minutes at a time just didn’t work with the human body,” Strom says. Tack on low wages, and AGVA’s job of unionizing the puppeteers became an easy one.
All thirty puppeteers signed cards to unionize that year before formally filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Boards (NLRB). That’s when Disney found out what their puppeteers were up to and countered by disallowing them from doing additional theme park character work to make ends meet. “That happens to be against the law,” Rosen says. He contacted Disney telling them the move amounted to an unfair labor practice and if they didn’t reverse course, the union would file charges with the NLRB. The House of the Mouse didn’t budge, charges got filed and the NLRB sided with the workers, but not before offering Disney a chance to settle. The agreement reached last January made Disney post notices informing puppeteers of their rights to unionize. The company also publicly pledged to restore schedules, pay back lost wages with interest and bargain in good faith. But contract negotiations haven’t eased up after the NLRB ruling. When AGVA pushed for grievance and arbitration provision, Disney refused until offering to have the company’s Vice President decide on worker grievances—a tad too partial for the puppeteers’ liking. Disney also put a three-year contract on the table for $12 per hour, which will be California’s minimum wage come 2019.
“It’s incredibly insulting, especially considering most of the puppeteers are already making more than that at Disney,” Strom says. The veteran entertainer works outside the theme parks, having done puppetry in television and commercial outlets for the past 23 years. “It’s very rare for a puppeteer to be paid anywhere near as low as that unless you’re doing a little kid’s party.”
And then came rumors last December that Disney Junior-Live on Stage would be ending. Rosen spoke with the company to confirm it. “They told me they’re going to reopen it a few months after the closure but without puppets,” he says. AGVA expects non-union character work will fill in the gap. Disney stresses that AGVA performers are going to remain part of the show’s new rendition, just not its puppeteers. As part of ongoing negotiations, the company says its looking into employments options for workers affected by the change.
For its part, AGVA still hopes to reach a contract agreement for future puppeteer work should it ever return at the theme parks. Both sides are expected to return to the negotiating table in mid-March. By that time, Disney Junior-Live on Stage, where puppeteers use their skillful talent in bringing joy to children, will only have a few weeks left in its current form.
“Everyone who works at Disneyland ultimately came here to do one thing and that’s to make magic,” Strom says. “It’s been very disheartening to see how the magic can be ruined so easily for business purposes.”