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At Paris Park, Goofy Has a Grievance

Labor: Part of troupe portraying Disney characters is on strike. Some say entertainment giant flouts French law.

July 08, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARNE-LA-VALLEE, France — Goofy, the Genie, Cruella and some of their amis at Disneyland Paris are fed up. It's hard and sweaty work donning a multilayered costume and 15-pound plastic head and entertaining kids, they say, and they want more money.

For two weeks, some of the young people who portray the Disney cartoon characters during impromptu sketches and the theme park's daily parade have been on strike, demanding an upgrade in status and a raise.

After three consecutive years of profits, they say, Disneyland should pay them more than a few francs over France's minimum wage.

"We do know that [Walt Disney Co.] President Michael Eisner roughly earns 12,000 francs [$2,000] a minute. We're asking for much less than that a month," said Steve, a 25-year-old Englishman who is one of the strikers.

The work stoppage, which currently involves no more than 150 of the park's 13,000 employees, has become the longest-lasting labor dispute at the park since Disney's European site opened here in April 1992. And it has attracted much more attention than the numbers would suggest.

For French labor leaders, and some of the strikers, the action has become a symbolic and highly charged test of whether a powerful multinational firm can be made to obey France's laws. The park's parent, Euro Disney, is 39% owned by Burbank-based Disney Co.

The personable, multilingual young men and women who are hired to incarnate Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Hercules, the Beast and other animated Disney characters maintain that French labor legislation entitles them to be given the status of "performing artists"--an upgrade that would bring higher pay.

Repeated calls to Disneyland management were not returned Tuesday. But in remarks to French media, park representatives have contended that national labor regulations on theme park employees do not apply to Disneyland because the sprawling establishment east of Paris, which contains its own hotels and restaurants, is much more than that.

"Disney is making its own rules. It's like a Vatican in France--a state within a state," complained Jean, a 23-year-old striker.

A national federation of independent labor unions has objected to Disney's behavior. Tuesday, left-wing Parisian politician Georges Sarre called on Labor Minister Martine Aubry to get involved, saying it is "totally unacceptable that Disneyland Paris seems to have become a zone of social lawlessness."

Daily, the strikers have been gathering on a plaza outside the park's main gate, unfurling their protest banners and handing out leaflets explaining their action to bemused visitors as security officials at the park gate look on.

"It's fabulous when you see a child come toward you, a big smile on his face. So we all want to get back to work," said Patrice, 25. "But we've had enough. They've asked us to tighten our belts too long."

Like most of the strikers, the young Frenchman refused to give his last name, saying he fears reprisals by park management.

The strikers put their numbers at around half of the park's 220 performers; Disneyland says they are no more than 40. Park officials say operations in the park, which has remained open since the strike began June 24, have been unaffected.

The actors, however, claim that their absence has crippled the daily 3 p.m. Wonderful World of Disney Parade, reducing the number of dancers from 150 to 50.

Although Disneyland Paris has faced challenges from many quarters, ranging from the outright hostility of French intellectuals to poor financial results at the start, it has enjoyed three straight years of profits, which rose 7.5% in 1997 to surpass $36 million.

Last year, 12.6 million people visited, making the park Europe's most visited tourist destination.

The strikers said that management had announced an increase in the minimum wage in January, but offered nothing to employees who were making more than that. The performers asked for a 7% raise but say they were turned down by park officials who were worried that all employees might want the same.

Strike leaders say the upgrade in status they seek would give the costumed actors more money--up to $450 over the current $1,130 a month--and that they also want raises for all personnel.

"Imagine I'm the genie from 'Aladdin.' I have to play the part--run, jump, sign autographs, give of myself," said David Marion, 24, a five-year employee and the strikers' designated spokesman. "Yet the status they give us puts us at the same level as sweepers or the help in the restaurants."

The strikers complained of arduous workdays, wearing suffocating costumes in hot weather and wigs filled with lice, of the danger of hurting themselves as they cavort for the entertainment of Disneyland visitors. Yet most remain loyal enough to the park that they refused to divulge to a reporter which characters they play.

"We're not supposed to. It would destroy the magic for visitors," one striker said.

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