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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Living Wage Lawsuit Against Disneyland Gets Class-Action Status

A lawsuit alleging that the Disneyland Resort is illegally side-stepping Anaheim's living wage law took a big step forward after an Orange County Superior Court judge granted it class-action status.

The certification came as a boon to workers employed by the Mouse House and Sodexo, a subcontractor; if found in violation of the law, both companies could be on the hook for substantial back pay.

"As a mother of a two-year-old, it's not easy to juggle all the bills and keep up with the rent hikes," said Michi Cordell, a 13-year Disney worker quoted in a law firm press release. "I love being part of the magic for all the kids and guests. We should be able to walk away from a hard day's work and not struggle to live."

Anaheim voters passed Measure L in 2018. The law tied a minimum wage tier to resort-area hospitality businesses that enjoyed tax rebate agreements with the city. It went into effect on January 1, 2019, but only non-union hotel workers at the DoubleTree saw a raise.

That's because Anaheim believes the Disneyland Resort is exempt from the law. In the lead up to the election, the Mouse House shockingly asked city council to shred two subsidy agreements it stood to benefit from, one providing tax breaks for a planned luxury hotel and another moratorium on any possible gate tax.

Councilmembers followed the Mouse's marching orders and allowed for the argument to be made that Measure L's trigger no longer applied. In the meantime, Disney negotiated pay raises in contracts with various unions, some more generous than the living wage law tiers, others less so.

The current minimum wage prescribed by the law is $17 per hour; the Disneyland Resort's lowest starting pay is $15.45 per hour.

In December 2019, Disney and Sodexo workers filed a lawsuit over the matter. The claim argued that a '96 resort expansion deal between Anaheim and Disneyland made the living wage law applicable to the company and its subcontractors.

The Voice of OC is now asking if the class-action suit will provide an answer to the question of Anaheim taxpayers subsidizing Disneyland. With the city having spent over $100 million to construct the Mickey & Friends parking garage while issuing bonds and still paying off debt with interest for resort-area improvements, the '96 expansion deal is clearly a subsidy by the most basic political and economic definitions of the term.

More pressing is whether the convoluted financing of the '96 resort deal constitutes a "tax rebate" as stated in the living wage law's language.

It's a technicality with a lot riding on it.

Something else to consider is the pandemic, which ruthlessly tore through Anaheim's tourist economy. The Disneyland Resort shuttered in March 2020 and continued to pay workers for a month afterward before furloughing and laying off most of its workforce. The Mouse House barely reopened in April 2021, with its hotels trailing behind.

The pandemic also ripped through the living wage law. The time that workers have been furloughed and laid-off can't be calculated for lost wages and recovered by a favorable ruling in the class-action suit. And as of late June, less than half of the resort's pre-pandemic workforce of 31,000 has been recalled.

But the question of lost wages and the law away from that unprecedented closure remains to be resolved.

Outside of the Disneyland Resort, luxury hotels are learning to love the living wage law. A telling quote that passed largely unnoticed came from Paul Sanford, CEO of Wincome Hospitality, whose Westin Hotel opened earlier this year across the street from Disney's California Adventure.

"I think this is a win, win, win for all parties involved," Sanford told Spectrum reporter Joseph Pimentel, of both Measure L and the now-retired luxury hotel incentive program which granted the Westin massive bed-tax breaks.

The hotelier explained that higher-paid workers provide for higher quality service for guests, a stark contrast from election season opposition that claimed the living wage law to be a "job killer."

Imagine that!

- Gabriel San Román

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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina

Mouse Muck

When reading the hefty biographies of Walt Disney, author Nathalia Holt noticed that the contributions of women to his classic animated films went without much mention, just as in the contentious credits at the time. In fact, legendary Disney artist Mary Blair garnered only a passing comment in one tome as the wife of Lee Blair, who worked at the studio as well, albeit less prolifically.

Providing a corrective, Holt's The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History charts the trailblazing artists in-depth for the first time. She achieved that feat the hard way by sifting through the personal collections of the women who already passed on.

Readers are then introduced to the likes of Grace Huntington, Bianca Majolie, Retta Scott, Sylvia Holland and Blair. Together, their talents helped shaped films like Dumbo, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella while laying the foundation for future women working in animation.

Not only are Holt's artist biographies richly engaging, but through her fluid prose and exhaustive research, a gender analysis of Disney animation emerges.

The boys club mentality at the studio is recreated with poignant detail right from the first page, which opens with a scene of Majolie darting from a pitch meeting after having her ideas mocked by male colleagues who literally barged down her office door. Walt reacted to the incident by confirming his hesitancy to hire women who supposedly couldn't take the heat of criticism.

At the same time, Walt's studio ended up employing more women than his competitors, though obvious and glaring gender pay gaps and discrimination persisted. In a telling anecdote, Disney legend Marc Davis applied for work as an animator only to have the hiring manager mistake his application as being from a woman. Davis cleared up the confusion and was hired after initially being rejected.

When the animators strike of 1941 arrived, most of the women who worked outside of the ink and paint department didn't join the picket line. They felt their position at the studio as women was already too tenuous to be risked by joining the fray.

It also arises the question: did the Screen Cartoonists Guild even agitate for gender pay equity and would that have changed their minds?

Blair is the artist that takes the story beyond the strike and the studio's troubled times after it. She became a favored talent of Walt's, which earned the jealousy of male colleagues and her own abusive husband. And her story extends to Disneyland where she did striking conceptual artwork for "It's a Small World" first for the 1964 World's Fair in New York before the attraction found a permanent home in Anaheim.

The ride's amazing facade and artwork may withstand the test of time, but Blair's other contributions to the Mouse House in the form of two Tomorrowland murals serve as metaphor. One was erased entirely, the other is believed to be intact behind its replacement.

Holt's scholarship has given readers the ability to recover a feminist history of the World of Disney from the thick coats of forgetfulness, especially as women still struggle to be seen in entertainment today.

Naranja Notes

With the coronavirus pandemic in Summer Surge 2.0, the Orange County Press Club Awards took place online again, as they did last year.

This awards season marks the first absence of OC Weekly, the rowdiest band of inebriated basterds in past in-person ceremonies, but as a freelancer, I still had some stories to submit in a competitive field. Here's how I did: The Real O.C. Award First Place: The Fantasies of Ole Hanson, San Clemente's Founding Father (Gustavo Arellano's Weekly) Marjorie Freeman Award for Best Humorous Story Second Place: 'You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time:' 'Combating Coronavirus' comedy provides much needed levity (TimesOC) Best Arts/Culture Story or Review (Advocacy Journalism or Specialty Publication) Second Place: Santa Ana Artist Reflects on Dia de los Muertos with 'And Still I Rise' Installation (LibroMobile) Best Feature Honorable Mention: He was one of the first Black cops in O.C. His memoir reveals struggles with racism and why he was forced out (TimesOC) Not too shabby for a freelancer in a pandemic. Congrats to all the winners! Oh, and the drunken ghost of OC Weekly lives! Gracias for reading all the way to the end! Now, don't forget to tell your friends to join the San Roman syndicate by subscribing!

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Lead photo: A Disney janitor shows off his broom brush skills / Photo by Gabriel San Roman

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