Economic justice starts with workers’ rights

Yesterday, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, a documentary-style film co-directed and co-produced by one of our very own members, Abigail E. Disney, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. While the film isn’t available for public consumption (yet!), we wanted to take some time to discuss its contents along with the broader worker empowerment movement that is taking place in America today.

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales explores pay inequality between those at the top of the American corporate ladder and those at the bottom through a case study of workers at Abigail’s family’s company, the Walt Disney Company. It profiles the livelihoods of four Disneyland custodians and contrasts them with that of former Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Before the pandemic, the custodians made $15 an hour – nowhere near a living wage in Southern California, with some workers being forced to sleep in their cars and make choices between food and medicine – while Mr. Iger took home a pay package of $65.6 million. In the end, the film makes the case for a reduction of outsized C-suite executive compensation and wage equality between employees and employers at big-box companies like Disney.

Disney has taken some small positive steps recently – in December, unions representing some 9,500 custodians, ride operators, and parking attendants at Disneyland ratified a new pay contract that raises the minimum wage to $18 by 2023 and introduces seniority-based bonuses. But while this is a step forward, it’s far from a true living wage in Anaheim, CA, where Disneyland is located. By all indications, that number is closer to $22. Take that still-substantial gap, and the fact that there are tens of thousands of other low-wage Disney employees not covered by the new contract, and it’s clear there’s still a massive amount of work to be done.

The well-deserved raise these Disney employees fought for follows a broader trend of American workers demanding more from their employers – higher pay, better benefits, fewer and more flexible hours, safer working conditions, proper work/life balance, and more. The pandemic has rightfully left employees across a variety of industries – particularly those in lower-paying, service jobs – fed up and determined to take steps to improve their lot because of it.

Record numbers of workers are quitting their jobs for better ones, leading to a movement that pundits have begun to call the “Great Resignation.” While this has been difficult for many employers unwilling to raise their wages or improve working conditions, it’s undoubtedly been a win for most workers. The backlash, however, has shown just how much disregard for worker rights is present in much of the private sector.

In Wisconsin last week, a healthcare company, ThedaCare, actually took another health company, Ascension Northwest Wisconsin, to court after seven of its employees left ThedaCare to work at Ascension for better benefits and hours. ThedaCare was apparently so strapped for workers that it wanted the courts to temporarily block the departing at-will employees from leaving until it could find replacements for them. This is even more appalling when you consider that the employees gave ThedaCare the opportunity to match their new contracts, and the company chose not to. Thankfully, a judge dismissed the case on Monday, allowing the employees to start work at Ascension, but this case further highlights the need for workers to stand up for their rights.

There have also been record numbers of workers striking to demand better from their current employers. In one week alone this past October, there were no fewer than 100,000 workers on strike. From healthcare workers in California and Oregon; to Kellogg’s workers in Nebraska, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Michigan; to workers on set in Hollywood, people all over the country were taking to picket lines and demanding more from their employers, many of whom made skyrocket profits off their backs during the pandemic.

The Patriotic Millionaires wholeheartedly support workers pushing back against exploitative practices and systems. One of our “first principles” as an organization involves ensuring that every working American receives a living wage. Economic justice starts with all workers being treated with dignity and respect on the job and making enough money to afford their basic needs off it.

We live in the richest country in the history of the planet. It is unconscionable that 40% of Americans cannot afford a $400 financial emergency. It is unconscionable that roughly 30 million Americans have no health insurance. It is unconscionable that employees at mega-companies like Disney have to make choices between food and medicine because they can’t afford both. It is especially unconscionable that all of this is occurring in the midst of record corporate profits and skyrocketing billionaire wealth.

We can bring about a more economically just country only if we demand better from those at the top. There’s a lot more work to do, but it’s great to see that workers all over the country are waking up to this reality. You can rest assured that the Patriotic Millionaires stand ready and willing to continue the fight.

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