How and When Did Scrooge McDuck Take Over Disneyland?

New Orleans    My dad was born and raised in Orange County, California, first in Tustin, then Santa Ana, and finally Orange itself where he lived until he finished high school. My grandfather was a foreman on an orange grove ranch until he couldn’t be, and then he worked as the janitor at the Lutheran Church, next to the parochial school that my dad, his brother and three sisters all attended at various times.  My dad used to tell us about delivering papers on his bicycle before dawn along the hills covered with orange groves that are now all occupied by one housing development after another.

We used to drive out to visit my grandparents in California every five years after we moved to New Orleans.  Of his two weeks of his vacation, we would spend three days driving out and three driving back, leaving at 4 AM in the morning to beat the humidity of the Gulf Coast and then the aridity of the desert until we arrived.  Once we went by his cousin’s carpet store to watch them build the Angels stadium in Anaheim.  We once went to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Twice we went to Disneyland.

I was shocked to read in an old copy of the New York Times that 85% of the 17,000 Disneyland unionized workers make less than $15 per hour, and that’s in California where the minimum wage is over $10 per hour, not $7.25, and on its way to $15 by 2022.  Furthermore, that’s in Orange County, not Sunflower County, Mississippi where my mother was raised.  Living costs are in another dimension in California.  The Times references a California Budget & Policy Center that calculates that a single adult would need to make $33,000 to meet a basic monthly budget, which is about $16 per hour at full-time work.  The story followed several Disney workers around as they slept in their cars, brushed their teeth at Starbucks, and tried to make it on their less than full-time shifts.

What’s going on here?

Disney is the largest employer in Orange County.  In 2017, the company made almost $9 billion in profits.  In the 3rd quarter of 2017, the parks and recreation segment of Disney, which includes Disneyland and Disneyworld in Florida, was the only major division that beat expectations with $1.2 billion operating income in that quarter alone.  No question, Disney has the money.

And, these workers have a union now and forevermore.  Walt Disney built the place union, and it was been union since it opened in California.  Even Disneyworld in Orlando is union in anti-union Florida.  The unions are organized in various trades councils where in theory every union and craft are part of the bargaining and representation from the skilled trades in maintenance to the large number of service workers in the hotels that are part of UNITE HERE.

Usually, we would think this is a great thing, but what’s gone wrong in Orange County that is allowing Disney to be Scrooge McDuck in dealing with its workers?  This should be Neverland, not Frontierland.  The Times story was triggered by a union-backed survey that indicated that 75% of the responding workers said they “do not earn enough money to pay for their basic monthly expenses, and one in 10 said that they had been homeless in the past two years.”  Clearly, we must demand that the unions stand up to Disney to force this rich company to pay living wages or make sure that visitors stop allowing their children to witness this daily hypocrisy in the name of profits.

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Some Lessons for Labor in Unite’s 100% Campaign

London     The last several years the treat at the end of the trail has been lunch with an old friend and comrade somewhere in London’s Chinatown where we catch up on labor union developments and organizing around the world.  Given developments in the USA where unions are contemplating losses of literally millions of members if the decision of the Supreme Court on agency fees goes backwards, as most widely expect, we mined deeply for good news and were rewarded with some deep veins.

One encouraging development continues to be airport worker organizing both in the US and, importantly since this is a global industry, around the world.  The organizing has significant leverage and vital tactical strength in the impact of potential worker action in forcing the hands of airlines, airport contractors, and their legions of subcontractors.  The recent backtracking by low-cost and fiercely anti-union, Ryanair, is a prime example when pilots upended their schedule.  There’s much work to be done though even there.  Flight attendants working the aisles are paid as little as thirty euros a flight!  That airline and many others are routinely breaking all manner of European Union minimum wage and labor standards requirements, so one of the challenges, just as in North America, will be getting real enforcement of the rules.  Work is being done there that seems promising.  This is an ugly secret of worker exploitation that can’t be sustained by the EU.  Another challenge, perhaps more difficult, is within the house of labor itself where the organizing, and eventual bargaining, means moving more than thirty different unions onto the same page.  The chief negotiator better have a bottle of aspirin ready at his fingertips!

Another bright spot we discussed, that surely has international impact, has been the success of the 100% campaign by the giant UK labor union, Unite, so USA unions take note.  The campaign has focused internally where Unite had collective agreements but didn’t have workplace strength in membership, so they set their organizing department at the task of focusing on internal organizing in order to fix this weakness.  Reportedly they have netted almost 100,000 members thus far, and it is now a badge of honor in the union and a minimum standard objective to achieve 100% membership density or darned close to it in every shop.  That’s wildly important and powerful.

As right to work becomes nationalized in the US for public sector workers, just as it has been in more than half the country for years, perhaps United Kingdom unions can teach US unions something that they have tried to ignore in the challenges faced by their southern locals for decades.  These are good lessons learned from hard work.

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