ANAHEIM, California – Cinderella, Snow White, Tinkerbell and other fictional fixtures of modern-day childhood were handcuffed, frisked and loaded into police vans Thursday at the culmination of a labor protest that brought a touch of reality to the Happiest Place on Earth.
The arrest of the 32 protesters, many of whom wore costumes representing famous Disney characters, came at the end of an hour-long march to Disneyland’s gates from one of three Disney-owned hotels at the center of a labor dispute.
Those who were arrested sat in a circle on a busy intersection outside the park holding hands until they were placed in plastic handcuffs and led to two police vans while hundreds of hotel workers cheered and chanted.
The protesters were arrested on a misdemeanor count of failure to obey a police officer and two traffic infractions, and were expected to be booked and released later Thursday, said Sgt. Rick Martinez of the Anaheim police.
Bewildered tourists in Disney T-shirts and caps, some pushing strollers, filed past the commotion and gawked at the costumed picketers getting hauled away. The protest shut down a major thoroughfare outside Disneyland and California Adventure for nearly an hour.
“It’s changing my opinion of Disneyland,” said tourist Amanda Kosato, who was visiting from north of Melbourne, Australia. “Taking away entitlements stinks.”
The dispute involves about 2,300 maids, bell hops, cooks and dishwashers at three Disney-owned hotels: the Paradise Pier, the Grand Californian and the Disneyland Hotel.
The workers’ contract expired in February and their union says Disney’s latest proposal makes health care unaffordable for hundreds of employees and creates an unfair two-tier wage system. The union also says Disney wants to create a new category of part-time employees who would receive greatly reduced benefits.
“The other hotels around the area all have health care that is provided by the boss and have been able to get wage increases,” said Ava Briceno, president of Unite Here Local 681, which represents the workers.
“At the other hotels in the same classification, for the same work, the workers get paid $2 to $3 an hour more.”
Disney spokeswoman Lisa Haines said that Disney and the union are in negotiations and nothing has been finalized. She said workers have protested 14 times but sat down to negotiate only 11 times in the past six months.
“Clearly we’re disappointed that Unite Here Local 681 has spent more time protesting,” she said. “Publicity stunts are not productive and are extremely disruptive to the resort district.”
Before the arrests, the picketers marched and chanted outside Paradise Pier, holding signs that read, “Disney is unfaithful,” and “Mickey, shame on you.” They were joined by community activists and religious leaders from local churches.
Luz Vasquez, who works in the bakery at Disneyland Hotel, said she can’t afford to lose many of her benefits. She said it’s already hard to care for her three grandchildren and aging mother while earning $14.32 an hour.
“Disneyland is being unfair with us because we’re fighting for our health care and they’re trying to take it away,” said Vasquez, 45. “They’re trying to cut our hours and take away our seniority.”
At the heart of the issue is a free health care plan that has been provided to Disney hotel workers through a trust fund that Disney and other unionized hotels in the area pay into.
Briceno said that in exchange for the free medical plan, union members agreed in previous contracts to a lower wage for hotel workers in the first three years of their employment.
But Disney now wants to eliminate the free health plan for new hires and wants to create a new class of workers who put in less than 30 hours a week, said Briceno. Those part-time workers would receive no sick or vacation pay and not be given holidays, she said.
The company also wants to increase the number of hours full-time employees must work before qualifying for the health plan, she said.
Haines said the majority of other employees at Disneyland pay for a share of their health plan, even though the resort shoulders about 75 percent of the overall cost. She said it’s important to negotiate a contract that’s fair to those other unions, too.