Every night, after the last visitors leave, Artemis Bell rolls up her sleeves and cleans the streets of Disneyland with a pressure washer. “My team and I work until the early hours of the day to make the park sparkle, so that the magic works as soon as the children arrive.” It is tiring and sometimes dangerous work, for which Artemis has been paid around US$11 an hour for the last five years, US$4 less than the minimum hourly living wage calculated by the Massachusetts In-stitute of Technology for Orange County, in southern California, where the very first Disney theme park was built in 1955.
“There are months when it is really hard, especially when you have medical expenses, because the insurance offered by Disney is very expensive and only covers a small part of the costs. There are times when my roommate and I have to take in a third lodger to be able to pay the rent,” the young woman explains.
A few years ago, Artemis Bell decided to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the eleven trade unions that started intense negotiations last spring with Disneyland, after the publication of Working for the Mouse, a damning report on its employees’ pay and living conditions. Jointly drawn up by Occidental College and Californian research institute Economic Roundtable, it is based on a survey of some 5,000 employees (out of the 30,000 employed at the park as a whole).
Almost three-quarters of the people surveyed said they did not earn enough to cover their basic expenses every month. One employee in ten said they had been homeless at least once in the past two years and more than two-thirds reported that they struggled to eat properly. And 85 per cent of the employees said they earned less than US$15 an hour.
Following the publication of the report, trade unions managed to mobilise nearly 130,000 people around a petition, which obliges the city of Anaheim to organise a municipal referendum, to be held in November, inviting the residents of “Mickey’s city” to vote on a wage increase for workers employed by companies benefiting from public subsidies, as is the case of Disneyland. The signatories are calling for a gradual increase in the minimum wage from US$11 to US$18 by 2022.
At the end of July, as Disney employees were preparing to go on hunger strike, the unions se-cured their first victory: the management finally agreed to raise the minimum wage to US$15 an hour as of January 2019.
The Disney workers’ struggle is by no means over, as the low pay is coupled with sometimes very testing working conditions. “The cleaning staff often has to use extremely corrosive prod-ucts. The hands of housekeepers aged around 20 are so damaged that they look like those of a 50-year-old,” says Ada Briceño, who worked at Disneyland hotels before going on to become co-president of the union Unite Here. “I soon realised that there was a huge gap between the magical world of Disney that the company promotes and the much less glowing day-to-day re-ality of the employees behind the scenes.”
Shannon Johnson, who trains housekeepers, ended up with pneumonia after having to com-bine irregular shifts. “There are weeks when I start work at 4am and then at 8pm the next day. There are times when I work 16 hours in a row,” explains the young woman. “Your body doesn’t have time to get used to a new routine every day. Our body clocks are constantly turned upside down and we often find it hard to sleep.”
Employees are known to work over 60 hours a week at times, especially during the summer season when visitor numbers peak. “But then in winter, there are times when we are only asked to work 20 hours a week, which means a substantial fall in our income,” underlines John-son.
Decline in conditions since the 2008 crisis
Sixty-year-old Kristy Paniagua is proud to have worked at Disneyland for over 35 years. “You see, it’s inscribed here on my badge,” she explains in Spanish, her eyes sparkling, pointing to the small golden Mickey pin on her chest. Although this Gran California Hotel employee ac-complishes her daily chores with dedication, she is no less critical of the management. “We have been fighting for better pay for years, but the situation has deteriorated considerably since 2008. My wage has only gone up by US$2 an hour in the last ten years, even though the cost of living has gone through the roof.”
“They have used the 2008 crisis as a pretext for freezing our wages, even though Disney is doing really well,” says Glynndana Shevlin, a sommelier at one of the restaurants in the park. In the last quarter alone, Disneyland, where the number of visitors is constantly on the rise, regis-tered a profit of $5.2 billion, an increase of 13 per cent. The theme park also benefits from huge tax breaks from the city of Anaheim.
With the rising living costs in California and the pay freeze at Disney, more and more employ-ees are having to sleep in their cars or to apply for the food stamps provided by the federal government to support the poor.
“When we complain, we’re told that jobs paid at $11 an hour are student jobs, but some of us have been working at Disneyland for 30 years!” protests Glynndana Shevlin. “I did training to get a better job, but I’m still paid less than US$15 an hour. I work 40 hours a week and still I’ve had to sleep in a shelter for homeless people.”
Blanca Orozco has been working as a dishwasher at Disney restaurants since 2002. She is con-templating taking on a second job on weekends and working seven days a week. “My mother just passed away and now I have my disabled brother and my father at home to support. I live in fear that we’ll end up on the street,” she explains, in tears.
“At Disneyland, we’re taught to smile at the customers all the time so that they feel that the park really is the ‘happiest place on earth,’” says Veronica Chavez, a young mother-of-three who went to work at the park following her divorce. “But when the lights go out, I can assure you, the smile freezes. And yet we’re not asking for much: just enough to live a decent life. Af-ter all, we also deserve a small share of all this magic.”