Disneyland’s greatest labor dispute 35 years ago this month seemed to be about dollars and cents. Union workers demanded better pay and no cuts to benefits when they walked off the job. The Mouse House, in turn, insisted on a two-year pay freeze and an end to health-care benefits for part-time workers. But the “Friendliest Strike on Earth” went deeper than just the competing calculations of stalled contract negotiations.
To workers, it became a struggle over the soul of Walt Disney’s legacy, one that imperiled the tight-knit “family” of all involved in keeping it alive.
That’s the conclusion a pair of scholars came to in “Conflict at Disneyland: A Root-Metaphor Analysis.” Ruth C. Smith and Eric M. Eisenberg interviewed workers and managers before, during and after the strike for their 1987 article that ran in an academic journal. They filtered out the core beliefs that shaped the workers’ and managers’ worldviews—“root-metaphors” in academic talk—that led to the inevitable impasse.
Workers understood Disneyland as a drama, not just an amusement park. (They’re called cast members, after all.) More important, they also believed that relations with management were familial, in essence, until bitter contract negotiations challenged the notion. “Walt wanted a family, but it’s business now, not Walt’s dream,” a ride operator said in an interview. “It’s not what he wanted.”
During the 22-day strike, unions held a candlelight vigil mourning Disney’s supposedly dying dream. But what really helped get both sides back to the negotiating table happened when workers paid their way into Disneyland and began distributing handbills to people, upending the “drama” of the park.
The strike formally ended in October with a ratified contract that exchanged a two-year wage freeze for keeping health benefits for part-timers. Its legacy carried on at the park through ill feelings toward scabs who crossed the picket lines and a continued resentment of management.
Smith and Eisenberg offered advice for the Mouse House: “An altogether new root-metaphor may be needed,” they concluded, “one that sees employees neither as ‘actors’ nor ‘children,’ but as full participants in shaping the present and future of life at Disneyland.”