Disney Heiress Meets with Disneyland Workers & Calls Out Disney for Getting Rich by Exploiting Them

Web ExclusiveJuly 18, 2019
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Image Credit: Jeremy Wong

We continue our conversation with Abigail Disney, the heiress of the Disney fortune, who is once again speaking out against the company’s unfair labor and wage practices. She recently spoke to Disneyland employees in California, where they shared their experiences with the theme park’s work environment. In the past, Abigail Disney has criticized Disney CEO Bob Iger’s obscene salary and the drastic pay gap between Iger and other Disney employees. Abigail Disney also testified in May at the House Committee on Financial Services during a hearing on strengthening the rights and protections of workers.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our interview with the heiress of the Disney fortune, who’s once again speaking out about the company’s unfair labor and wage practices, after speaking to workers at Disneyland in California. Earlier this year, Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, the co-founder of Walt Disney Company, made headlines when she called Disney CEO Bob Iger’s salary “insane.” Abigail Disney testified in May at the House Committee on Financial Services.

ABIGAIL DISNEY: Does a CEO’s pay have any relationship to what his hotel maids and janitors get? Do the people who spend a lifetime at the lowest inch of the wage spectrum deserve what they get, or does any full-time worker deserve the dignity of a living wage?

Disney is not just any company. It is not U.S. Steel or Procter & Gamble or any other iconic American brand. The Disney brand is an emotional one, a moral one. I would even say it is a brand that suggests love. I have spoken up as a Disney—about Disney because I’m uniquely placed to do so and because Disney is uniquely placed in American life. Those moral undertones and all that love need to be put to constructive use, because this is a moral issue.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Abigail Disney testifying before Congress. She’s a filmmaker, an activist, the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney—again, co-founder of The Walt Disney Company. Abigail Disney has been very outspoken on the issue of wage inequality. She wrote a widely circulated opinion piece in The Washington Post headlined “It’s time to call out Disney—and anyone else rich off their workers’ backs.” She’s joining us from Cork, Ireland.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Abby. Can you start off by talking about what your message was to Congress and what you’re hoping to accomplish right now?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: Right. Well, I’ve been hoping to take the wage issue on by way of Disney, because it’s such a stark and clear problem, that in the same year, at the same company, you have one employee who comes home with $140 million, and another employee that goes home, for a full day’s work, and doesn’t have enough money to pay for their insulin. It’s in the same year of record profitability at the same company. And frankly, they’re less than 30 miles from each other. This should trouble us all. This cannot be abided.

So there’s a—first of all, there’s a practical reason not to be doing these things. But also there’s really a moral question, and that’s the one I think we need to take on. We cannot continue to just look the other way as one class of people gets wealthier and wealthier and wealthier. And if you make $140 million in a year, I ask you: What can you not afford? How can you possibly use that money? And how can you sleep at night, given what’s happening at the other end?

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to Disneyland in California, and you spoke to workers there. Some reports misidentified, said that you had gone undercover. You didn’t go undercover?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: No. No, no, no, no. No. I mean, why would I go undercover anyway? I mean, I don’t think anybody there knows what I look like. You know, it’s a free country; I could go there if I want. No, I spoke with workers at their union headquarters, off property, and just sat with them. All I wanted was for them to look me in the eye and tell me what was going on, because, you know, I had heard a lot of things from very partisan places. I wanted to really hear the whole story myself.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you hear? And also, I mean, it is interesting, if they knew who you were—you’re the heiress to the Disney fortune. You’re the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, who founded Disney. How did they—first, how did they respond to that? And were they curious about why you were so interested?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: Well, Disney is a really special company. I mean, that’s why this is so important to me. You know, when people find out my name and they hear “Disney,” it’s a very different reaction than it would be if it were Rockefeller or something like that, because it means something really special to the people who work there, to people across the country.

People who come to work there believe, every morning they get out of bed, and they go to their job, and they make the world a better place. That is [inaudible] genuinely are committed to doing, by giving families an experience that is unlike any other experience and that is basically like glue for families. So, they’re very committed to what they do.

And so, when I go in and meet with the workers, first of all, they’re really happy to meet me, because they know I have this direct link back to the founders and the people who, you know, created this whole idea. So, first of all, there’s always a bonding that happens when I go into a meeting with a lot of Disney workers.

But then, you know, this particular meeting took a turn. And that’s when they started to really talk to me about their lived experience of, for instance—as an example, you have a woman in the makeup department who is doing the same 9-to-10-hour days for the same amount of money she was doing it two years ago for, only now there are 200 people in a department that used to have over 250. So, they’re doing the same amount of work in less time—I’m sorry, in more time for the same amount of money. And that’s one way that they force productivity on workers, you know, and bring down the total cost of what they’re doing. This is the kind of thing that’s being forced on them.

And what she said to me was really important. She said, “I don’t know if I can continue to do the quality of work that I want to be doing because I love this company, because I love the mission of this company. I want to do the high-quality work, but I can’t, because I can’t pay for insulin”—in this particular case.

So, you know, if you have employees that are that committed to your company and who really believe in that, you should consider yourself very lucky. And Disney has been able to squeeze more and more productivity out of their workers for less and less and less money, and less and less in compensation of a variety of kinds, because of that goodwill that employees take to the company. And they’re going to—they’re going to squeeze that dry. And once they squeeze that dry, they can’t recover from that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, earlier this year, in March, Disney bought 21st Century Fox, in a $71.3 billion merger. Can you talk about this and what the implications are and what Disney will now own?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: Yeah. Well, you know, in the ’80s, when Reagan began to sort of take on the FCC and the rules for broadcasting—and he made a lot of rules changes without going through Congress—and every progressive commentator at the time said, “Oh my god! This is terrible, the corporatization of media.” Well, everything they had to say in the 1980s has played out exactly as we worried. It has destroyed news departments. It has decreased the amount and quality of information we all get. It has consolidated power in a handful of people. And so, the quality of the films and the television that we get is also decreasing, in my opinion.

So, what this is is the apotheosis of media consolidation. And that should frighten us all. We really should be worried about where our information and where the films and the popular culture that shape you and I and our children and grandchildren is being affected in a deleterious way, by the narrowing of the source of material. So, it’s going to continue to narrow our minds and narrow our spirits.

Disney, when this merger happens, will be the largest media entity in the history of the universe, as far as I can tell. I mean, I think that’s accurate. And how do we check their power? How do we make sure that they’re doing what they are obligated to do, not just from a legal perspective, but also from a moral and social perspective? We have no recourse with entities like this. And, you know, if we have a problem with the way they do their job, that’s just tough.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in looking at news reports, first, has the company responded to what you’re saying? Company telling other media outlets it pays workers above the federal minimum wage, with a starting hourly wage of $15 an hour, at California’s Disneyland. The company is committed, they say, to $150 million to its Disney Aspire program, that pays for workers to earn a college, high school or vocational degree. The average salary, they say, $46,127. You point out Iger, this next year, will be making what? A total of something like $140 million.

ABIGAIL DISNEY: Right, yeah, yeah. So, you know, I don’t care how many times they say all of those things. Just look at the contrast between $140 million and $46,000. We know that a living wage in Anaheim is more like $24. So when they, after years of fighting tooth and nail, went to the $15 minimum—and it was only just this year—they raised it to a minimum that still wasn’t a living wage.

So, and then, if you put into context the $150 million they spend on the Aspire program, against the multibillions of dollars they spent in share buybacks because of their Trump windfall, if you add to that the fact that they gave bonuses—OK?—in a year when they got permanent tax relief, and they could have, if they gave bonuses that year, given salary increases as a—you know, that’s just—it’s an insult. It’s an insult to these workers. It doesn’t matter if they’re going to get educated in terms of what they did today. Pay them for the work that they did today, and pay them fairly. And if they’re working full time, and you’re at record profitability, there is simply no excuse for paying a sub-living wage to any worker.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you going to do with all of this now, Abby? You’re a filmmaker. You’re an activist. You’ve been interviewing the Disney workers. Are you planning to make a film about this, about your life, about your family?

ABIGAIL DISNEY: I am, yeah. So, I’m going to make a film about the inequality issue, because, you know, Disney is just synecdoche, right? It just is a reflection of everything that’s happened in American business culture for the last 50 years, especially the 50 years since Milton Friedman published his first op-ed. And the anniversary of that will be next September. So, I want to kind of take that on and really put it into context: what has happened to the American worker, why has it happened, and what it is that we tolerate here on planet wealthy that has changed in 50 years.

You know, it happens—one of the things Americans are least equipped to handle is changes that happen slowly. We seem not to be able to fight the things that are glacial in their pace. And we have allowed for a change in the ethos in our country to happen to us. And we need to really draw a line in the sand now and make sure people understand what it is they’re tolerating, and make sure this is really still OK with everyone, because I actually think that the vast majority of Americans, Trump voters included, do not want to live in a country that is this unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: Abigail Disney, we want to say thank you so much for joining us, filmmaker, activist, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney—co-founder of Walt Disney Company—wrote a widely circulated opinion piece in The Washington Post earlier this year headlined “It’s time to call out Disney—and anyone else rich off their workers’ backs.” We’ll link to that piece.

You can also go to Part 1 of our discussion with Abigail Disney at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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