Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney

Image of Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney
Release Date: 
October 24, 2023
University Press of Florida
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When it comes to organized labor, Walt Disney and the company he founded have had an intermittently turbulent and troubled history.

In 1941, Disney animators went on strike, a walkout that lasted five weeks, to get union recognition for the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild.

Walt, feeling betrayed, refused to recognize the union, fired many of the strikers, and at one point tried to physically attack one of the leaders, Art Babbitt, on the picket line. Disney also tried to recruit a mob-connected rival union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts (IATSE), to undermine the guild.

Company officials, fearing Walt was nearing a nervous breakdown, hustled him off on a goodwill tour of Latin America. While he was gone, President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched a team from the U.S. National Labor Relations Board to Burbank to investigate. They found Disney Studios guilty of unfair labor practices and ordered them to recognize the union and sign a contract, which they did on Walt’s return.

Labor peace in California ensued until 1984, when there was another bitter strike by Disneyland theme park workers, who were also threatened with firing before the company settled.

Much has changed since then, as the Associated Press’ Orlando bureau chief Mike Schneider explains in his slender, definitive book, Mickey and the Teamsters: A Fight for Fair Unions at Disney.

From the very first sentence of the Introduction, Schneider says he is writing as a union man, for three decades a member of the Newspaper Guild, now itself engaged in protracted contract negotiations.

“More than anything, [union membership] has given me a sense of security against the whims of any mean-spirited managers or cost-cutting measures enacted during tough economic times,” he writes.

“I view my union as a comforting presence that will protect me, guide me, and offer me a community of colleagues who have my back.”

This gives Schneider the credibility to ask a serious, disquieting question about one union that represents Disney World workers in Orlando: “What happens when a union becomes undemocratic, turns on its members, and becomes the enemy?” Or when leaders retaliate against members, making them feel uncomfortable and even threatened, and refuse to represent their interests against their bosses?

This is the story he tells in Mickey and the Teamsters, of Teamsters Local 385, one of numerous unions representing Disney World workers. Schneider focuses on those rank-and-file members of the local who are the mute, costumed characters that roam Disney World’s four theme parks, often in stultifying getups that were almost unbearable during Central Florida’s brutal summers.

In practice, the union was a typical example of Teamster corruption and authoritarianism.

To begin with, the local union’s leadership, instead of earning salaries roughly commensurate with their members, paid themselves salaries multiples of those average salaries. They used union funds for car rentals and trips to Las Vegas and hired their children for jobs. Money raised for scholarships for the children of union members was never awarded, with donations going directly into the local’s general fund. Policy decisions were made without the approval of the general membership. Women with the same union local jobs were paid less than men.

Challenging this crew was the local’s feisty business agent, a former costumed performer and shop steward named Donna-Lynne Dalton.

Initially, Dalton was a reluctant reformer, preferring to focus on helping individual members in the workplace. The diminutive but tough-talking activist fought for her rank-and-file members and defended them in grievance proceedings and contract violations.

Dalton, who was one of Schneider’s longtime news sources, was responsible for many improvements in working conditions. Repeatedly he cites them by saying, “Because of Donna-Lynne” and “Thanks to Donna-Lynne.”

Incredibly, one of the foremost of these successes was to ensure that the costumed characters had clean costume liners between shift changes, and would no longer have to contend with lice, scabies, and skin rashes.

“As a business agent for the character performers,” he writes, “as well as other central Florida workers, Donnna-Lynne grew to have a dash of Cinderella’s hope, Mulan’s fearlessness, Anna’s determination, and Snow White’s talent for rallying a cast of animals to her side or at least human performers dress as animals. More than anything, Donna-Lynne acted as fairy godmother to the character performers.”

Within the 9,000-member union local, class and cultural tension existed between the minority of costumed character performers, who tended to be diverse—many women and gay men, often with college degrees—and the Teamsters leadership and members, who tended to be truck drivers and warehouse workers.

Thus, in subsequent challenges, the truckers in the local consistently outvoted the costumed characters and their insurgent allies. Those who supported the challenge faced draconian retaliation by the local’s incumbent leadership.

“Teamsters Local 385 leaders . . . ultimately failed their members as the local moved away from the principles and union democracy and aimed its wrath at the costumed characters performers,” Schneider writes.

“Efforts to reform the leadership cost Donna- Lynne her job,” Schnieder reports. “Local 385 leaders alienated a crucial segment of the membership and caused hundreds of members, if not more, to leave the union. The leadership was not responsive to the needs of the locals’ members, and there was a lack of financial transparency,” Schneider writes.

Fired from her union position, Donna-Lynne took a job with Actor’s Equity, which represented other Disney World performers.

But in the wake of their defeat, it was Teamsters International President James Hoffa, Jr. who, unable to ignore the flagrant corruption, finally dislodged the local’s leadership, placing it under trusteeship.

“Democracy in unions isn’t easy,” Schneider concludes. “It can be messy and difficult to sustain. Leaders who become entrenched in their jobs can lose touch with the needs of their rank-and-file members.”

Schneider, who covered many of the incidents and events in the book for the Associated Press, writes in smooth prose, as one might expect from a seasoned reporter accustomed to writing for a broad audience.

Perhaps because Mickey and the Teamsters is published by a university press, it is unnecessarily footnoted, given that it is a journalistic account, and many of the footnotes are simply references to interviews by the author.