Let’s face it, the Mouse is acting a little strange lately. After decades of dolling out pittance in pay, the Disneyland Resort agreed in late July to bring thousands of workers belonging to its biggest unions up to $15 an hour next year. Then, they followed that contract by raising starting salaries for non-union “cast members” to $15.75 an hour. Most surprisingly of all, Disney asked Anaheim this week to shred a deal giving it $267 million in subsidies over 20 years for a planned luxury hotel. They also pleaded for a decades-long moratorium on entertainment taxes to be lifted.
Giving a little more money back to workers while walking away from big tax breaks? Steamboat Willie turns 90 later this year, but Disney’s recent behavior can’t be blamed on its mascot mouse suffering from a rapid onset of dementia.
While Anaheim mayor Tom Tait lauds Disney’s change of heart on subsidies as “bold” and even “kind,” it’s far more likely a shrewd legal move born out of fear given the popularity of a living wage measure on the November ballot in Anaheim. If passed, the ordinance establishes a wage scale up to $18 an hour by 2022, more generous than anything Disney’s agreed to over the summer. But there’s a catch; it only applies to corporations in the Resort area who receive tax subsidies like the ones Disney’s walking away from.
And the Mouse has good reason to scurry.
The Weekly obtained the results of a five-day public opinion poll conducted by Sextant Strategies and Research that began on June 15, a day after the living wage measure qualified for the ballot. By that time, the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions created a wave of momentum by releasing a commissioned report in February on the poverty plight of Disney Resort workers that made international headlines and flying in United States Senator Bernie Sanders to rally their cause on June 2. Having surveyed 548 Anaheimers on the cusp of all that, the returns were damning for Disney. With regards to Measure L, the living wage initiative’s official name, Sextant did a split sample test. They first introduced the question much like it will appear on the ballot. With that, the survey found 70 percent supported the living wage measure as opposed to only 25 percent who didn’t. That alone is a ballot box beatdown but it gets better!
Councilwoman Kris Murray, who’s publicly spoken out against the measure, sought to put dollar signs on it in a failed bid to challenge the ballot question during the Anaheim city council meeting on July 31. In the split sample, the survey reframed its question mostly along those lines. The margin in favor of the living wage measure actually widened to 82 percent with only 14 percent opposing!
Aside from concerns about higher wages on the horizon and its own bottom line, the Mouse is also famously obsessed with its reputation. With Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge slated to open next year at Disneyland, brand loyalty will stay strong. But the living wage’s polling numbers actually outpace the Disney Corporation’s favorable rating, which is a stinker at 67 percent. Labor unions don’t trail far behind, checking in at 64 percent–and Disney has a higher unfavorable rating. That’s saying something for a city whose voters usually scorn anything reeking of unions, including rejecting John Leos’ 2012 council bid despite organized labor outspending Disney that year; Leos belonged to a public employee union but was also a Republican, a fact that didn’t help him overcome the supposed stain at the ballot.
The surprising statistics don’t stop there. Pollsters took a final temperature check on voter attitudes regarding the living wage measure as well as two other ballot initiatives regarding development agreements for two subsidized luxury hotels in the Anaheim Resort that a previous council already approved. Taking the top, 48 percent of respondents noted that the measures “tell Disney and the rest of the tourism industry that residents are holding them accountable” is an opinion that most closely mirrors their own.
In a sharp rebuke of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce’s talking points filtered through Matt Cunningham’s disgraced blog, only 26 percent agreed with the notion that the ballot measures are a cause for concern in creating a hostile business climate destined to drive development to neighboring cities. It’s not all a wash. UNITE Here Local 11, a hotel workers union, organized a petition drive in 2016 to put Measure J and K on the ballot in hopes voters would pull the development agreements for a pair of Wincome Group luxury hotel projects. In fact, much of the questions focused on those measures suggesting it may have been commissioned as opposition research although Sextant didn’t respond to the Weekly‘s inquiries regarding the poll.
Either way, after testing out more arguments in favor of approving the development agreements than pulling them, respondents delivered a strong 80 percent return on the former.
By all accounts, Sextant conducted a pretty rounded survey with regards to demographics mostly reflective of Anaheim’s registered voters. They even asked where residents of OC’s biggest city are most likely to brush up on local news. Among print and online media, the OC Register polled at 68 percent with Weekly not far behind at 65 percent. In a humble brag, this infernal rag bested the Los Angeles Times by two percentage points (Sorry, intrepid Voice Scouts: the Voice of OC news website didn’t factor into the polling for some reason).
How Disney’s move to have its subsidies cancelled proves to be a variable for voters with regards to the living wage measure remains to be seen. With Wincome not following in the Mouse’s tracks, its subsidized luxury hotel projects clearly fall within the ordinance’s provisions. In the meantime, the attack dogs appear to have been called off. Business interests once banded together to call themselves the “No on the Anaheim Job Killer Initiative” Coalition a day before the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions kicked off their signature gathering campaign in support of the living wage measure. They tried flooding city hall with template protest letters against it.
When that didn’t work, the Chamber, a Job Killer coalition partner, sent councilman James Vanderbilt a spreadsheet of lower “counter initiative wage options.” Obtained by the Weekly, it even featured a column dedicated to LA County’s minimum wage scale–one that the Chamber otherwise publicly trashed as detrimental to development. Vanderbilt also met with Disney in mulling an item for the July 17 city council agenda, coincidentally on the theme park’s 63rd birthday. During a council meeting in June, he vaguely mentioned pairing a “community benefits” fund, something that sounded a lot like businessman Bill Taormina’s harebrained Anaheim Resort User Fee idea circulated among the city’s power players, with an alternate wage initiative. But the Hail Mary failed. “From where we sit today, it can be seen as an early effort to deescalate some of the tension surrounding this issue like we are now seeing with Disney and the city,” says Mike Lyster, city spokesman.
If Disney’s offering a “peace treaty,” it’s because, as polling shows, they were poised to lose the war. In the thick of the fight, Disney deferred all press inquires regarding the living wage measure to the Job Killer coalition. The Weekly contacted lobbyist Jeff Flint about its lack of a pulse lately, but received no response. By June, the group’s Facebook page went cold. As previously reported, the website for the counter-campaign did one better by disappearing altogether and is now a link to nowhere in waving the white flag of surrender.
It ain’t just the Mouse that’s scurrying in Anaheim.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.