Media Circus: Mickey Mice Unite!

Disney's $700 million man, Michael Eisner, puts the squeeze on workers at home while his Mom 'n' apple-pie company tosses workers 6 cents an hour abroad

By Bruce Shapiro
May 29, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)
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they arrested Minnie Mouse on 42nd Street. Minnie, along with Mickey and Donald Duck, was sitting in the street on May 15, in front of the New Amsterdam Theater, the Disney Corporation's Times Square showpiece and the center of the neighborhood's renovation into a family-values oasis. As Minnie was led off to the pie wagon, a police officer grabbed her big head by the ears and yanked it off, revealing Amanda Ream, a 23-year-old union organizer, beneath. Ream was one of a couple thousand Disney-ABC employees demonstrating noisily outside the New Amsterdam, where company chairman Michael Eisner was hosting a charity benefit.

Ever since the Mouseketeer days, Mickey and friends have been more than just cartoon characters -- they're sociological Rorschach tests. In the 1950s, Walt himself cast his cartoon factory as the symbol of American prosperity. In the 1970s, exiled Chilean poet Ariel Dorfman wrote a tract called "How to Read Donald Duck," a take-down of U.S. attitudes toward the rest of the world. A few weeks ago, Christian Coalition types fired off a salvo at the company for airing the "Ellen" coming-out episode: To them, Disney is a symbol of the sexually permissive media elite. To New York Times columnist Frank Rich and other left-leaning critics, Disney's huge corporate reach -- which spans sports teams, paperback book companies and a TV news network -- makes the corporation the most potent symbol of what media critic Mark Crispin Miller calls the National Entertainment State.


But this 42nd Street protest was about something decidedly non-symbolic: the treatment Eisner's family-values company affords workers who try to raise families on a Disney paycheck. At issue in this particular protest are 2,700 unionized ABC news writers, technicians and other production-line workers, many of whom Disney wants to replace with non-union, lower-wage temps. At another time, with another company, this might be just another broadcast-news contract dispute. But these workers aren't alone. From Orlando to Rangoon -- and even among the company's own shareholders -- Disney is under unprecedented fire as a company associated with some of the worst employment practices on earth.

At the high end of Disney's pay scale is, of course, chairman Eisner himself, hosting that New Amsterdam charity benefit while picketers shouted across the street. Last year he negotiated a hefty 10-year personal compensation contract that the Washington Post values at more than $700 million. Eisner's salary and contract are set by a corporate committee headed by Eisner's own attorney, Irwin Russell -- perhaps the highest-level conflict of interest in corporate America. Conservative estimates put Eisner's pay last year at $102,000 per hour.

At the opposite end of the scale are subcontracted textile workers and toymakers who put together Disney's Pocahontas pajamas and stuffed Lion Kings. In Haiti, women stitch Aladdin T-shirts for 28 cents per hour; in Burma, 6 cents per hour. In Vietnam, Disney toys are made by 17-year-old girls working 7 days a week for 17 cents per hour. Last year, a British human-rights investigation revealed "appalling" conditions -- women working 72-hour weeks -- at a Bangkok factory making 101 Dalmatians and Lion Kings. Not all those Disney sweatshops are abroad. When federal officials last year raided a garment factory in El Monte, Calif., and found dozens of Thai immigrants living under slave-labor conditions, it was Disney children's clothes rolling off the sewing machines.


And unlike, say, Kathy Lee Gifford -- who after being humiliated with tales of the origins of her clothing line in Honduras became an anti-sweatshop campaigner -- Disney has done everything to evade and obfuscate reformers. "We have engaged two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor activities of licensees and their manufacturers around the world," Disney announced in a press release early this year. Baloney. The larger of the two NGOs, notes Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, is a for-profit, Swiss-based multinational quality-control outfit "with more than $2 billion a year in revenues and with absolutely no connection to human rights." At the Disney annual meeting in April, company vice president Sanford Litwack told concerned shareholders that the company opposes independent monitoring "because it would be inappropriate for us to be involved in the social and economic agenda of other countries." Indeed, Eisner & Co. tried to block a shareholder resolution on sweatshops brought by Progressive Asset Management, a mutual fund, but were ordered by the Securities and Exchange Commission to bring the proxy to the floor. It received 10 percent of the shareholder vote.

While overseas sweatshops get the Lion King's share of media attention, Disney's U.S. employees are increasingly restive as well. There are union problems in New York, Anaheim and Orlando. Even the original Mouseketeers have gotten in on the act. The Screen Actors Guild has filed a grievance against Disney, saying Eisner's company has never paid the survivors of Disney's golden age more than $100 million in residuals and other fees owed for the constant re-use of "Mickey Mouse Club" programs on video, laser disc, CD-ROM and advertising.

Disney, in a sense, has come full circle. Back in 1941, before Walt Disney became America's benign culture-master, his animators struck the studio over wages and working conditions. It was a bitter strike that went on for six months, ending only when a federal mediator ruled in the animators' favor. Today, eroding salaries and a near-totalitarian management style has Disney employees grumbling from coast to coast.


At Disney World in Orlando, for instance, the company recently instituted a reorganization described as "Empowerment Evolution," touted as a move away from top-down management in the increasingly competitive theme park business. But at Disney World "Empowerment Evolution" has actually meant one manager for every 20 employees (Disney World calls them "cast members") compared with one manager for every 60 in years past. It means plainclothes snoops constantly monitoring Disney World employees' interactions with customers, and replacing dozens of unionized supervisors with white-collar managers. A similar "evolution" is now under way in Anaheim.

It is against this larger Disney backdrop that those demonstrators appeared on 42nd Street earlier this month, while Eisner raised donations for a New York hospital inside. "Disney promotes itself as a vehicle for the dreams of children," organizer Charles Kernag reflected. "But this is the real Disney: sweatshops that employ children, union-busting that makes it harder for families to get by." Under Eisner, Disney has expanded geometrically. But it has also become a leading contestant in what global-economy gurus Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello call the "race to the bottom": a take-no-prisoners-game in which whoever has the lowest wages and worst working conditions wins.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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