Half of full-time workers in the United States cannot make ends meet. Thousands of them work for the Walt Disney Company. One of them reached out to the dissident heiress Abigail Disney, whose grandfather Roy Disney built what is often called the “happiest place on Earth.” Now she’s made a documentary about how the family business exploits its workers: “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales.” The film follows workers who have difficulty making ends meet despite the lofty claims of the Disney conglomerate. “This is a phenomenon that’s happening across this country in corporations and even around the world,” says Disney, who co-directed the film with Kathleen Hughes. Employees who agreed to be filmed “had a hope that if they could change Disney from within, Disney could lead the way for other corporations,” notes Hughes.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We end today’s show looking at how half of full-time workers in the United States cannot make ends meet. Thousands work for the Walt Disney Company. One of them reached out to the dissident heiress Abigail Disney, whose grandfather, Roy Disney, built what’s often called “the happiest place on Earth.” Now she’s made a documentary about how the family business exploits its workers. It’s called The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. This is the trailer.
DISNEY WORKER: Disneyland was not like anywhere else on Earth. When I started working at the park, the employees were so happy to be there. The company appreciated you. At least it did.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Having the last name Disney is like having a weird superpower you didn’t ask for. But then one day I got a message from a guy named Ralph who worked at Disneyland.
How many of you know somebody who works at Disney who’s slept in their car in the last couple years? How many of you know somebody who have gone without medical care because they can’t afford it?
The American dream teaches us that if you work hard enough, anything is possible. It’s magical thinking.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Dr. Disney.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Disney could raise the salaries of all of its workers to a living wage. It was possible to do this when my great-uncle and grandfather built the company. It’s possible now.
REP. TREY HOLLINGSWORTH: That is socialism. We know what that is.
RALPH: We’re the people who do the pixie dust at night. We scrub the kitchens, the floor, the toilets. With both of us working full-time, we still fall below poverty level.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: A custodian would have to work for 2,000 years to make what Bob Iger makes in one.
UNIDENTIFIED: The Disney Company is ground zero of the widening inequality in America.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: You know, I think of it as the assholification of America. This isn’t just a Disney story. It’s the story of nearly half of American workers who can’t make ends meet.
UNION ORGANIZER: I have this passion growing within me now, building power for working-class people like me.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: If you could tell Disney anything, what would you tell me?
RALPH: We’d like to be able to have a home.
AMY GOODMAN: In The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, we meet a number of Disney workers, including a couple named Ralph and Trina, who work overnight shifts to support their three young children. They earn $15 an hour, plus an extra 75 cents an hour for working overnight.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: You guys met at Disney?
ABIGAIL DISNEY: [inaudible] each other?
TRINA: He saw me in the parking lot. And I said, “Do you want to eat inside the park or outside the park?” He said, “Inside the park.” And we’ve been together ever since.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: So, it was an inside-the-park home run.
TRINA: Pretty much.
RALPH: Pretty much.
TRINA: Go, Kenzie!
RALPH: Do you see your daughter?
RALPH: At the time when we first met, I had this idea that we would move out and have our family and everything.
WEDDING GUEST: Yay, Trina! That’s the way to do it!
RALPH: Unfortunately, the economy does not allow that. We live with my mother-in-law. We’re lucky enough to do that.
TRINA: I’ve always wanted to have a house of my own, always dreamed of one. But I would settle even to have an apartment. It would be nice to just have it where I can tell my kids that I can do things on my own and not have to rely on my parents.
You want Mommy to come down with you?
RALPH: Even with both of us working full-time, we still fall below poverty level.
TRINA: We try to do as much as we can that doesn’t require any kind of money. We make $15 an hour. And for people who work at night, we only get 75 cents an hour extra. But for working the hours we work, with the lack of sleep, I don’t think 75 cents is enough.
RALPH: So, our shift starts 11:30 to about 8:00 in the morning. It’s very physical work. We’re the people who do the pixie dust at night. We scrub the kitchens, the floor, the toilets. And I’m proud of what I do. I’m very proud of it. And that type of thing, you’ll find throughout all the parks. The people who tend to work there want to provide the best.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes, who co-produced and directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Abby is the granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy Disney.
Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Abigail Disney, take us on your journey. You are not just a director and a producer, of course. You are also the person who is exposing what’s going on in Disney, along with the workers. Talk about what made you make this film.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Well, you know, I’ve cared for a really long time about income inequality and various ways in which this country has really not treated its workers well. So, I got a message directly from someone who worked in the park, Ralph, who we just met. And, you know, I had cared in the abstract for a really long time. I actually had not really let myself look at the company itself. But, you know, the call was coming from inside the house. I couldn’t pretend it had nothing to do with me anymore. Once Ralph reached out to me, it became very personal, and I had to get started on something.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can’t hear anything.
AMY GOODMAN: Ah, we’ve just — Juan has just lost the feed. So, Abigail, talk about going out to California. I want to play a clip from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales in which we see you meeting with the Disney workers who make $15 an hour.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: By a show of hands, how many of you have someone you know that works at Disney that’s on food stamps? Wow. How many of you know somebody who works at Disney who’s slept in their car in the last couple years? How many of you know somebody who have gone without medical care because they can’t afford it? How many of y’all have children?
ARTEMIS: I am somebody who doesn’t have kids. I don’t have the finances to take care of a child in the way that I would like to. It’s affected my ability to family plan and to look towards my future as far as my personal life. And it’s not — you know, this is not where I thought I’d be at 33.
DISNEY WORKER 1: Mmm, don’t cry, baby.
DISNEY WORKER 2: You can borrow our kids.
AMY GOODMAN: A clip from The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Kathleen Hughes — not only are the workers at Disney so badly paid, but you documented an astounding amount of local government subsidies by Anaheim in Disneyland, and likewise, the state of Florida and Orlando also have provided subsidies. Could you talk about your surprise at these enormous subsidies, given the fact that, you know, the average price per person at Disney World or Disneyland is over $100? For a family of five, that would be $500 just to get in. We’re not talking about the parking —
KATHLEEN HUGHES: Absolutely.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and the food and everything else that’s spent.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: Yeah, no, you’re right. I mean, people save for years to take their family on this very, very expensive adventure at Disney World and Disneyland. But, you know, Disney is a big American corporation. And like so many corporations, it spreads — well, it spreads its money around into all levels of government. And it does that in order to get tax breaks, subsidies and the rest of it. They kind of, you know — I mean, all of us have heard about how there’s so much money in politics, and this is why these companies spend all that money.
So, in Anaheim, in particular, we found out — and so, we kind of know all that, but what we found out was that over a period of about two decades, Disney received a billion dollars in tax breaks and subsidies from the city of Anaheim alone. And that’s just part of the way they’ve kind of managed to manipulate the system in their favor. So, it’s pretty [inaudible].
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Abigail — Abigail Disney, could you talk about the response of the Disney Company? Were you able to get them on record to talk about their practices?
ABIGAIL DISNEY: We reached out to them for comment. And primarily they focused on the employee issue, and they pushed back on us and said, “Employees are everything, and we love them, and we do everything right.” I mean, you know, you can watch the film and judge for yourself about how the employees are feeling about the way they’re being treated.
Disney does something that’s rather the usual in terms of corporations. They’ll offer more of a lot of things that aren’t money and time. And the two things that are under most pressure — that people are most under pressure around is their money and their time. So, they’ll offer you a free college education but in very limited forms. There’s healthcare, but you have to pay into it, and many people can’t afford to pay into it.
You know, it’s really quite rough. And the company can say all it likes about how well people are treated. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. People are really struggling to put enough food on the table.
AMY GOODMAN: Abigail, you are Disney’s worst nightmare, clearly. This is the film —
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Yes, I am.
AMY GOODMAN: — they don’t want people to see. You testified before Congress and learned that Disney had lobbied for you not to be able to speak. The Republicans tried to stop the hearing before you even opened your mouth. Talk about your writing to Bob Iger and then — as you call it, the Bobs — Chapek, as well.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Yeah. So, I did. When I first met Ralph, I went there quietly. I had no intention of making a film. I went by myself. My daughter came with me. We sat in that circle, but without cameras, and heard everything that everybody had to say. And I was so enraged, really.
And I came home, and I really thought about it hard, and I sat down and labored over a very long email to Bob Iger, because I wanted to lay it out for him, because it wasn’t just a question of the hourly pay, it was the pressure on productivity and the disrespect and the stripping of perks and all that has gone on. But it’s — the main underlying principle there is that people are not seen as people anymore. They’re just replaceable parts of a machine. And so, the overall impression I had was of a company that had just utterly changed in terms of how it understood those partners that it has in the parks. And so I wrote that long, long email to him, long before I started the film.
And the answer I got back was very unsatisfying and very short. And I followed up with the head of HR, which is what he suggested I do, and she was a very nice lady, but, you know, we weren’t speaking on the same wavelength at all. That is the last I’ve directly communicated with anybody there.
The letter at the end of the film is really more of an open letter that I wrote for the end of the film, and so they get to get it in the same form everybody else gets to get it, which is on film. I don’t have any sense that they’re, you know, hankering to reach out to me. They would really rather I just stay quiet. But this doesn’t feel like — this doesn’t feel like something that asks me to stay quiet. And on top of it, we’re talking about corporations, in general.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: Right.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: This is not just Disney. And it feels especially bad because we’re talking about Disney, because of the affection people have for that company. It really felt like an incredibly important thing to make sure that people understood that this is a phenomenon that’s happening across this country in corporations, and even around the world.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: You know, the workers we profiled all love Disney. They love the company. And part of the reason they wanted to participate in the film was they had a hope that if they could change Disney from within, Disney could lead the way for other corporations. It’s somewhat idealistic, but it’s the case. And it could be true, if they could lead the way.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Abigail Disney, I wanted to ask you about Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s effort to dismantle Disney World’s quasi-independent Reedy Creek district and also about Disney’s response to his “Don’t Say Gay” bill. You penned an op-ed piece in The Washington Post earlier this year on it.
ABIGAIL DISNEY: Yeah. And, you know, what’s going on there is very nefarious, as far as I’m concerned. Look, Reedy Creek is not exactly the most democratic institution that we’ve ever heard of. It was an invention of my grandfather’s in the early 1970s as a way of, you know, making financial sense out of all of the needs for all the land they had down there in Florida. If I had my druthers, they wouldn’t have that kind of special status. But what Ron DeSantis said was, “I’m going to take away the special status, not because it’s unfair, but because you’ve disagreed with me politically.” And that is a frightening and, frankly, fascistic approach to enforcing law. And it was a message. It was a message to every other company that does business in Florida, because he said, “I’m going to go after the most powerful company here in this state, I’m going to make a statement, and I bet you not one other company is ever going to cross me again.” And that’s exactly how it’s worked out. If you look at what’s happened in the aftermath, there’s been total silence on the subject, on both sides. And that’s because I’m sure they’re locked away in a dark room somewhere working it through, because they’re really on the same page. Disney wants to make money, and DeSantis wants them to be quiet. So, still working it out.
AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen, Bob Iger became a billionaire at the beginning of the pandemic as so many workers were losing their jobs. We have 15 seconds.
KATHLEEN HUGHES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts?
KATHLEEN HUGHES: It’s immoral. I mean, it’s just — the system has gone haywire. And we should not have people making that kind of money while his own employees are going to food pantries to support their — to feed their children.
AMY GOODMAN: Abigail Disney and Kathleen Hughes co-produced and directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. It will be in theaters across the country on Friday. Abby is the granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Walt Disney. Here in New York, it’s premiering at the opening of DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film. And yesterday I was at the firehouse for the ribbon-cutting. Congratulations! Abby Disney was there. You were using those scissors with Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno. It was a beautiful, beautiful event. And that film will be the first documentary to air there on Friday night, again, as well as across the country.
A very happy birthday to Jackie Sam!
Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for an associate digital editor, as well as a people and culture manager. Go to democracynow.org for more information. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.