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Disneyland performers file petition to form labor union

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Performers who help bring Disney's beloved characters to life at its Southern California theme parks filed a petition Wednesday to form a labor union.

The workers include parade performers, character actors and support staff at Disneyland and an adjacent theme park, Disney California Adventure. More than two-thirds of roughly 1,700 eligible workers signed the petition to seek an election through the National Labor Relations Board, the workers said, noting that a vote will likely be held in May or June,

At a news conference in Anaheim, which is home to the two theme parks and the Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment district, workers said they also asked The Walt Disney Co. to recognize the union they are calling “Magic United.”

Several workers said they love helping create a magical experience for Disneyland visitors. But they said they grew concerned when they were asked to resume hugging patrons after returning to work during the coronavirus pandemic and they face certain challenges, including injuries from costumes, erratic scheduling and a lack of clear communication from management.

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Mai Vo, a 37-year-old performer who has worked for Disney for two decades, said she wore black contact lenses as part of a costume and that they stained her eyes gray. She also was paid less for that job than someone who played a similar role but who was in a union, she said.

“I love my job, but I know that we all deserve better,” Vo said. “I am confident that by standing together, we will be strong and be able to advocate for positive change.”

Most of the more than 35,000 workers at the Disneyland Resort, which includes the theme parks, already have unions. Parade and character workers announced their plans to unionize in February under Actors’ Equity Association, which represents theatrical performers at Disney’s Florida theme parks.

In a statement Wednesday, Disney officials said: “We support our cast members’ right to a confidential vote that recognizes their individual choices.”

Union membership has been on a decades-long decline in the United States, but organizations have seen growing public support in recent years amid high-profile contract negotiations involving Hollywood studios and Las Vegas hotels. The NLRB, which protects workers’ right to organize, reported more than 2,500 filings for union representation during the 2023 fiscal year, which was the highest number in eight years.

Disney has a major presence in Anaheim. Disneyland, the company’s oldest park, was the world's second-most visited theme park in 2022, hosting 16.8 million people, according to a report by the Themed Entertainment Association and AECOM.

In California, Disney’s cleaning crews, food service workers, pyrotechnic specialists and security staff are already unionized. The company has faced allegations in recent years of not paying workers a livable wage for Southern California, despite raking in profits. Wage issues have even wound up in the courts.

Parade performers and character actors earn a base pay of $24.15 an hour, with premiums for different roles that can vary widely, workers said. Until January, the base pay was $20 an hour.

The effort to organize character and parade performers in California comes more than 40 years after those who play Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck in Florida were organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union traditionally known to represent transportation workers. At that time, the Florida performers complained about filthy costumes and abuse from guests, including children who would kick the shins of Disney villains such as Captain Hook.

Kate Shindle, president of Actors' Equity, said she was confident the California workers would win the election through the NLRB, the federal agency that protects workers' rights to organize.

“They just want to be paid fairly, to have a more humane scheduling system, to know that they are safe on the job, to have clear and respectful communication at work.” she told reporters while flanked by more than a dozen Disney workers wearing blue T-shirts with union slogans.

Shantall Segura, a 29-year-old character performer, was among them. She said she worries she might fall in slippery shoes after it rains, or soak her feet while walking through puddles on uneven ground.

Parade performer Courtney Griffith, 26, said her coworkers are frequently injured by ornate or heavy costumes and developed a rash after donning one particular costume but were told to keep wearing it. She said the costume was finally shelved after a manager tried it on and developed a rash, too.

“I would like to work here as long as possible. This is my dream job,” Griffith said. “We’re all experiencing similar issues and our management is not being given the resources by the company to help us.”