Abigail Disney’s dream: Living wages for workers

Disney co-founder's granddaughter imagines more equitable America, starting with better pay for Disney park workers

Published October 18, 2022 11:00PM (EDT)

Abigail Disney speaks at Firehouse DCTV's Cinema For Documentary Film Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on September 20, 2022 in New York City.  (Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
Abigail Disney speaks at Firehouse DCTV's Cinema For Documentary Film Ribbon Cutting Ceremony on September 20, 2022 in New York City. (Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

When Abigail Disney was growing up in Los Angeles, she was told never to publicly disparage her family business. Her grandfather, Roy O. Disney, founded the company with his brother Walt. She followed those instructions for most of her life, but in 2018, she opened a Facebook message from a Disneyland worker pleading with her to visit him and his fellow cast members, as Disney calls its park employees, to hear their stories. When she got to Anaheim, she was so struck by their hardships that she decided to make a documentary film, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales. Through the stories of Disneyland cast members and of her own family, Disney (a philanthropist who previously made several other documentaries) explores how and why today's political and economic system keeps workers in poverty while enriching executives — both to levels unthinkable a generation ago.

In one scene Disney is shown sitting in a circle with a group of Disney workers. "How many of you know someone who has slept in their car in the last year?" she asks. Hands go up. "How many know somebody who has gone without medical care because they can't afford it?" More hands. 

Later, she is shown testifying before a congressional committee, saying, "Disney could raise the salary of all of its workers to a living wage. It was possible to do this when my grandfather and great-uncle built the company, it's possible now." Committee members immediately tell her "that is socialism" and call her a Marxist. 

Disney emphasizes that she is merely calling for the kind of economic balance that existed during her childhood. Her film notes that as Disney CEO her grandfather earned about 80 times the salary of the average Disney worker. Bob Iger, Disney CEO when she filmed the documentary, was paid about 1,400 times the average Disney worker salary. 

Disney believes corporate CEOs and workers are now "part of a complicated system that constrains us all," with corporations devoted solely to shareholders without regard to their broader role in society. The film opens with a quote from the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, "We are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond." It is that consciousness Disney hopes to inspire in U.S. society, so that workers can live without want for daily necessities.

Speaking to Capital & Main, Disney said returning to those social norms would require the "courage and imagination" to change our tax and labor laws, the very values which her grandfather and great-uncle claimed to define the Disney company. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales is streaming on various platforms.

Capital & Main: What's your view of how your grandfather did business, and what do you think happened that has broadened this divide to where we are today?

Abigail Disney: I would go in the back with him through the cast members' entrance [at Disneyland] when I was a little girl. And I remember very clearly how people greeted him. There was no like, "Oh my gosh, it's the boss. I better be on my best behavior" sort of feeling around him. 

People knew his name, he knew their names. He asked about their children. He asked, "Did you move into that house you told me about?" He would know details about people who were the people who poured the sodas and took your tickets. They were not the big muckety-mucks at the company.

And the thing that I always tell people about him was that he would always pick up a piece of garbage, no matter where he was, no matter who was there, no matter what was going on. He would always bend over and pick a piece of garbage up off the sidewalk. 

And I asked him once why he did that, and he said, "Because no one's too good to pick up a piece of garbage." And when I think about the modern CEO class and how they would feel about picking up a piece of garbage, it's almost laughable. That's absurd. And that's what I mean by the way my grandfather did business.

So when I say what's happened to the way my grandfather did business, all of those things have been discredited and driven out of boardrooms, driven out of corporate priorities, because the idea has taken hold that the only thing that has value is monetary value. Everything else is kicked to the wayside. You can get laughed out of a room for suggesting that authenticity is a higher priority.

So there is this cultural shift, but at the same time, your grandfather, and I think your parents, were very conservative people, but government and labor unions also held them accountable.

Disneyland was a union place from the day that it opened in 1955. And I suspect if my grandfather had had a choice in the matter, he wouldn't have had it be that way. He didn't love unions. 

But it's interesting, he didn't love unions because he was a paternalist; he wasn't an abuser. What he wanted was to be able to decide what people were paid based on what he decided because he was a nice guy and not because these were people's rights. And that's a pretty important and fundamental difference, but it is not the orientation toward business of a contemporary conservative. So yeah, his politics were pretty far on the right wing, but there was no unkindness in him.

You say in the film that you feel that Bob Iger (then-CEO of Disney) is part of a complicated system that constrains us all. Talk a little about the complexity of the world where we're now in versus the world maybe of the 1960s, and how that is constraining us.

If you worked at an investment bank in 1968, you had a pretty lowkey job. You earned a pretty decent salary and lived in a nice house, probably drove a Cadillac back and forth to work, but you didn't have any idea of having a private plane. That was the furthest thing from your mind. 

What happened in the interim was partly that ideology shifted about the place of money in contemporary society and the right of an individual to seek out and fight for every penny that they can possibly lay their hands on.

The financial system was unleashed by law and has become this kind of all-consuming monster that eats everything in its path. The percentage of the economy that was spent just on pure financial activities was infinitesimal compared to now. So it has sucked up so much of the energy in our economy and crowded out so much that most of the loss on the other end of those transactions has accrued to workers.

You state in The American Dream that after you sent an email to Bob Iger, he responded saying he understood the hardship of the workers, but put more of the responsibility on the government to improve their conditions.

He said that it was more complicated than just raising their wages, which is absolutely true, it is more complicated than that. Housing is expensive, and not because it's Disney's fault. But what was infuriating about his response was that [he said] raising their wages wouldn't make a difference and therefore we're not going to raise their wages. It honestly felt to me what he was really saying was, "I will do anything except raise their wages." And that's the part that really made me angry.

Among young people, there is now broad support for labor unions and for improving health care, housing and wages. But we see in your film when you're testifying before Congress, when you try to have a conversation about these things, you literally were called a socialist and Karl Marx was evoked. How can we have a more evolved conversation about achieving a more humane economy? 

The majority of Americans agree at a general level with the idea that wages for workers are too low, unions and collective bargaining are important, the tax structure is wrong and needs to be changed. 

The government isn't all bad, and maybe it's appropriate for it to behave in certain ways and intervene in the world in certain kinds of ways. So the view that I'm describing there is what you might call a left of center view. Over there on the right, there is a reflex to react against anything that smells left of center.

And I don't think that reflex necessarily comes from the thinking part of your brain. I honestly believe that the word "socialist" is coming out of a lot of people's lizard brain. It's not a genuine conversation. It's a bludgeon, not a word.

So the way to handle that is to just keep talking sensibly and keep going forward, keep pushing on policy and let the people who are panicking and freaking out and being unreasonable do what they're going to do. Just keep talking to the American people because they're with us.

At the close of the film, you say that the progress we need will require courage and imagination. And it seems like the workers in your film have courage and imagination. But again there's this corporate structure that is against imagination and courage in some ways because it just complicates things too much; and it exists in government and politics as well. What do you see as some of the obstacles that could be removed to foster that kind of courage and imagination in voters, maybe in politicians?

I think we foster courage and imagination in politicians by being different voters, by actually holding people accountable for their positions. And that includes corporate Democrats who have not been that helpful as we've tried to turn the tide on this as well as conservatives who are so corporate that it's destructive to people. 

When I say courage and imagination, what I'm describing is a visionary. And a visionary is not a person who weighs a risk before making decisions about things. And corporations are risk- phobic, politicians are risk-phobic, but who are the people who push the world forward?

Who are the people who genuinely change things? Who are the politicians we actually remember? They are visionaries. Martin Luther King was a visionary. He was all about courage and imagination, and most of his best speeches were conjurings. They were asking the listener to imagine with him a space that was different and transformed. And that's what I'm trying to do with this film.

I'm not comparing myself to Martin Luther King, but I'm asking people to imagine that it could be different. And unless people will get into the space of that imagining and have the courage to really push for that, nothing is ever going to change.

What should this younger generation that is just starting work in a Disney park or is among the 77% of young people who support unions, what should they be doing now to actually bring about change?

I think what young people need to be doing right now and as well as people across the board in the labor sector is to be supporting unions, giving their time to unions — not just their dues, but actually working to make them succeed.

Because right now, they're strapped, they're underpopulated, they're not well thought of. So if you want to make a difference in the world, change the way people around you think about unions and things will start to materially change. I think that's really important.

And then ask for better from our politicians. It's not just a question of voting, but holding their feet to the fire for all the years in between every time you show up at the polls.

Call them, write them letters. Do everything in your power to get money out of politics. Nothing's going to change till we do that. So those are the things that I think are most important.

What should policy makers be doing?

The IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] is a massive step in the right direction.

It's thrilling to me that finally after all these years, the government has taken a positive step in the direction of concrete action on climate change and married that concrete action to justice for workers and people of color. 

The way the bill is written is actually quite brilliant, and I'm really happy about that. We need to vote Kyrsten Sinema out of office and go after that carried interest loophole and rethink the entire tax structure. Top marginal rates if they went up, they cannot be gamed, they cannot be avoided.

If you push top marginal rates up for the top earners, then you will have a very different pay structure in companies. And when the pay structure changes, the behavior will start to change.

Your grandfather, and probably for much of his career your father, probably didn't like the top marginal rate, but they paid a substantially different amount of taxes, didn't they?

They paid a lot more in taxes, it was between 70% to 90% for most of my grandfather's working life and my father's life until Ronald Reagan came in, and they hated it, they complained about it the way people at the time also complained about the phone company. But there was no winking about the cheating. There was no, "I'm going to the Cayman Islands to my house because I love the Cayman Islands so much."  It wasn't like this jokey, "I don't pay taxes because I'm smart" ideology.

I think my father and my grandfather would've been horrified by the level to which tax cheating has become a socially acceptable way of operating.

Where did your grandfather live? His house is shown in the film.

He lived in a pretty standard upper middle class neighborhood. He was not living a rough life at all. He had land around his house and it was a beautiful place, but it was a ranch home with three bedrooms and open to the street. In the film, my grandfather picks a rose from one of the rose bushes. Those were my grandmother's favorite rose bushes. And I think actually probably right after that shot, she yelled at him because she would've killed him for doing that on camera. But that was the life they had.

They had a nice garden, they had a nice lawn, but they didn't want other houses, for instance. They had access to a corporate jet, but only when they were traveling on business. They flew first class, but they didn't have an expectation that they didn't have to wait in line with everybody else. They didn't see themselves as different from or better than other people. I think that's really the key.

By Peter Hong

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