On Monday, a group called ‘Millionaires for Humanity’ signed a letter calling for their respective governments to tax them more heavily to provide for coronavirus relief and combat wealth inequality. Ava DeSantis writes why a brief history of Disney labor practices demands the signatories take real action.
The letter opens, “millionaires have a critical role to play in healing our world [during COVID-19]...we do have money, lots of it. Money that is desperately necessary now and will continue to be needed in the years ahead, as our world recovers from this crisis.” The millionaires called for their “governments to raise taxes on people like us.”
We need to recommit to our “interconnectedness,” wrote the signers, by protecting essential workers, preventing mass job loss, and addressing wealth inequality.
Government leaders, asserted the letter, “must take responsibility for raising the funds we need and spending them fairly.” Taxing the wealth is “the right choice,” and “the only choice,” according to the signers. There were over 80 signers of the letter, notably Abigail and Tim Disney, the inheriting owners of Disney.
Abigail Disney has a net worth of $120 million, and continues to derive profit from her part-ownership of Disney.
Millionaires make their money by exploiting the financial needs of their workers. Tim and Abigail Disney, regardless of their public concern for ‘essential workers,’ are no exception.
Tim and Abigail Disney state their opposition to the wealth gap, but continue to derive profit from and live off of the spoils of theme parks whose workers earn poverty wages. Then, the Disneys accuse politicians of failing, because they cannot reclaim the money Disney continues to deprive its workers.
In 2007, China Labor Watch reported Disney subcontractors produced consumer goods in Chinese factories with inhumane conditions. In the eight factories cited, the subcontractors hired underage workers, insisted excessive overtime work, created unsafe conditions within the workplace, and did nothing to address reports of sexual assault.
A 2018 study of 5,000 Disneyland employees reported that 74% of workers do not earn enough to pay for basic needs like food and housing. Peter Drier, a policy professor at Occidental College, wrote in the report “as Disneyland profits and prices hit record highs, Disneyland employees fall farther behind. Disneyland's wages aren’t keeping up with rising rents in Southern California.”
More than two-thirds of theme park employees enrolled in the company health insurance plan said they could not afford other necessities because the company requires employees to pay a large share of healthcare costs. According to the survey, 84% of workers earn less than $15 per hour, and over 50% make less than $12 an hour. 13% of Disneyland employees with young children reported being homeless within the last two years. 46% of employees said that the low pay they received forced them to lower their food intake: starvation wages.
Despite the cost of living in California increasing consistently in past years, the wage at Disneyland decreased by 15% from 2000 to 2017 when adjusted for inflation. One merchandise host told reporters “I have been working for Disneyland for almost 28 years and I make less than $20 an hour. If I didn’t have my husband to help with the bills and other life expenses, I would be living out of my car, or worse, homeless.”
When Disney learned of the study, they responded not with concern, but by denouncing it as “inaccurate,” “unscientific,” and “paid for by politically motivated labor unions.” While unions did fund the report, those unions which represent the interests of Disney workers, not an abstract political or ideological group.
In 2018, also, China Labor Watch revisited the factories they studied in 2008, finding further labor violations, poverty wages, and risk of fire and exposure to toxic chemicals for workers.
In 2019, five employees sued Disney on behalf of over 400 hospitality workers for “unlawful conduct and unfair business practices,” namely, failing to pay hundreds of workers a living wage. Under Measure L, an Anaheim city law, employers who receive tax rebates from the city must pay their employees at least $15 an hour.
One plaintiff in the case, a bell person at the Disneyland hotel named Thomas Bray, made $12.25 per hour when they filed their lawsuit. Other plaintiffs include Regina Delgado, a cashier who made $12 an hour when they filled their lawsuit; Alicia Grijalva, a makeup artist who made $12 an hour; Javier Terrazas, an event server who made $12 an hour; and a barista who made $14.25 an hour.
“We shouldn’t have to struggle living paycheck to paycheck. We are all trying to pay our rent, feed our families, get gas to drive here and there,” said Grace, a barista named in the lawsuit. “We shouldn’t have to make the choice between putting gas in our car to get to work and feeding our family.”
Disney, before Measure L passed, had a deal to receive two large tax rebates: a $267 million tax rebate to build an additional luxury hotel, and a 30-year entertainment tax break to invest $1 billion into their existing resorts. One month after the measure passed, Disney chose to forgo both rebates, instead of choosing to pay their workers a living wage, effectively admitting that they make more than $267 million in wage theft.
Attorneys for Disney claimed that when they cancelled these rebates, Measure L no longer required the company to comply. However, the company continued to profit from rebates which had a combined worth of $1 billion, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation.
The Anaheim government refused to require Disneyland to pay its workers a living wage.
The simplest explanation for wealth inequality is: capitalism. The second simplest explanation I would offer is that there are few owners of capital, many workers, and owners pay workers very little while keeping the profits.
Wealth redistribution is a method of combating the resulting income inequality by reclaiming stolen profits in the form of taxation. Working class people often rightfully demand wealth redistribution, but, for owners like Tim and Abigail Disney to demand it is absurdly performative.
In an interview with The Cut, Abigail Disney argued, with material possessions their wealth allows, the wealthy corrupt themselves. “It’s fundamental to remember that you’re just a member of the human race, like everybody else,” said Disney, “and there’s nothing about your money that makes you better than anyone else.”
Wealth does make you different from the average American, however. It is not enough to abstain from excess materialism to maintain your personal experience of normalcy, or ‘down-to-earth’ personality. The inheritors of wealth have a responsibility to redistribute their wealth to the people their ancestors exploited to earn it, a responsibility which separates them from working class people.
The Disneys essentially stole money, and now blame politicians for not reclaiming the stolen money. Imagine, a bank robber complaining about ineffective detectives failing to maintain bank security.
Last year, Abigail Disney commented on Bob Iger, then CEO of Disney’s, yearly raise. “When he got his bonus last year, I did the math, and I figured out that he could have given personally, out-of-pocket, a 15 percent raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland, and still walked away with $10 million.”
Well, Ms. Disney, I did the math too. You have a net worth of $120 million. You could give $3,500 to each of the 30,000 California Disneyland employees, almost triple the value of the government’s coronavirus relief check, and still walk away with more than $10 million.
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