A serf exiled from Mouse monarchy

In the summer of 1993, a year and a half after I began working as a principal performer at the Disney/MGM Studios, I attended my first contract negotiations between the company and my professional union, Actors' Equity Association. After a long night of talks, subsequent to a hot day of work, I sat in the room with my fellow union members. There were two long tables, one for us and one for Disney management. It was late, and I waxed philosophical:

"There is an unbridgeable gulf between us," I said to my tired friends, and pointed to the tables. "And the truth is simple. No matter how well we do our jobs, someday all of us at this table will be let go. And no matter how poorly they do their jobs, someday, all of them ... will be promoted."

I have recently been "let go" by Walt Disney World, for the third time in eight years. My latest firing -- or to use the company's term, "nonrenewal" -- took effect one week ago. I will never return. (At some point you have to stop allowing yourself to be treated like a pinball.)

I don't want to be seen as just another disgruntled ex-Disney employee. In many ways, Disney and I never were a good fit. I came to the company at age 40, after more than 20 years of professional theater experience. In all that time I had never worked for either a giant corporation or one whose culture was so foreign to my way of doing things. I had never dealt with layer upon layer of managers, many of whom were surprisingly ignorant about the craft of entertainment. Likewise, I had never toiled with so many younger workers, whose lack of experience led them to be poorly used by a company that touted its high regard for its workforce, but in reality treated them as expendable "resources" who dragged down the bottom line.

At any given time, there are at least 300 performers working on Disney property who are represented by Actors' Equity. Last summer, things came to a head when the company unilaterally decided to "reinterpret" our union contract in a way that caused a majority of my bargaining unit to spend a dozen or so extra hours a week at the workplace, literally doing nothing. My daily arguments with management solidified my reputation as a trouble-maker. After more than two months the company relented, but only because it was threatened with action by the union. At no time did it admit to breaking the rules.

When any new worker comes to Disney World, he or she must attend orientation known as "Traditions." One of the things I remember clearly about "Traditions" was when my "teacher" drew an upside-down triangle on the chalkboard. At the top, on the flat end of the triangle, he proceeded to draw several stick figures, representing "us" -- the "cast members." As the triangle's sides converged downward, the many levels of Disney management took shape, until, at the bottom, a representation of CEO Michael Eisner was scratched in. This, we were told, was the Disney paradigm. From Michael, bearing this huge burden, up to the triangle's top, the entire structure existed to support the workers.

This assertion was, and continues to be, completely false. The modern-day Disney exists primarily to increase the wealth of its largest shareholders, far beyond what any rational person would consider prudent or acceptable. Its workers are inconsequential in the corporate scheme. CEO Eisner is one of the best-compensated corporate chiefs in the world, having cleared over half a billion dollars in salary and stock options in 1998, even as dozens of local character performers were fired for demanding more than $250 per week. And although Disney's stock value fell 30 percent in 1999, top managers still did extremely well, the greatest insult coming in the form of the continued $130 million pay-out to Eisner's friend Michael Ovitz, whose brief tenure as his second-in-command produced absolutely no benefit for the company.

Yet, regardless of how Disney and I might have disagreed, I have always taken great pride in the work I have done under its banner. I firmly believe I was "let go" because of my strong stands on management/labor issues and my refusal to be intimidated by a company that won't adhere to the legal contracts it makes with its employees. In other words, I was fired because I was a pain in the neck, and attempted to induce others to hold Disney to the very standards the company holds out to the public.

So, to anyone who really wants either a long or lucrative Disney career (something I will never have), here is my advice: Never stand up for your rights; don't worry about your skills or talent; simply get to know the right people; and for goodness sake, never, ever tell the truth. Like most of the people at that other table, chances are, you'll probably get promoted, too.

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