Philanthropy

Meet Abigail Disney, the Disney Heiress Who Is Fighting For Equal Wages

Walt Disney's grandniece has become a warrior for income inequality, but she's no socialist. If you like capitalism, she says, you "better fix it."
IMAGE CELESTE SLOMAN
Comments

The first salvo in Abigail Disney’s crusade against the company that bears her name was fired somewhat impul­sively in March, on CNBC’s Squawk Box. Disney was ­invited onto the program to talk about her support for a “multimillionaire’s tax” on households earning more than $5 million a year—households like hers. She was joined in lobbying against her own interests by 200 other ultra-high-net-worth individuals, including George Soros, Chris Hughes, and Liesel Pritzker Simmons. The group called itself the Patriotic Millionaires.

“It’s the most obnoxious name in the world,” Disney says, “but it’s by design. Nobody ever forgets it.” Co-host Joe Kernen was duly provoked and repeatedly attempted to cast his guest as an enemy of human flourishing. “I was primarily trying to fend Joe off,” Disney says, “and then Andrew Ross Sorkin came in with a question about Bob’s salary out of the clear blue sky.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

"I did what I always do: I said what I thought."

The question Sorkin asked was, “Do you think Bob Iger is overpaid,” noting that later that day the company’s shareholders would be casting a nonbinding vote on the Disney CEO’s proposed compensation package, which included a $3 million base salary, a $12 million bonus, and another $20 million in stock options. (The package was approved.) Disney, who is a granddaughter of Roy O. Disney and a grandniece of Walt, says that while she “had no plan to answer that question, I did what I always do: I said what I thought.”


“If your CEO’s salary is 700, 600, 500 times your median ­worker’s pay,” Disney, who has urged the company to use a living wage calculator, told Sorkin, “then there is nobody on earth—Jesus Christ himself isn’t worth 500 times his median worker’s pay.” (The actual ratio in Iger’s case is 1,424 to 1.) Disney’s comment, which came nine minutes into the 10-and-a-half-minute segment, was picked up by news outlets around the world, with market watchers parsing the numbers, and at least one Baptist theologian considering the scriptural implications.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

“It came to me at the moment,” says Disney, a filmmaker and theater producer. She concedes that “if I had gone to a focus group and tested things that would get attention, that probably would have been the winner.” Sorkin agrees. “I think I knew that something had just happened,” he says. “It definitely felt like a moment.”

Unbeknownst to Sorkin, Disney had already been doing some agitating in private. The previous June she spoke to around 20 Disneyland workers about their financial struggles at a union office in Anaheim. “I was so livid when I came out of there, because, you know, my grandfather taught me to revere these people that take your tickets, that pour your soda,” Disney said. (She did not go to the meeting “undercover,” despite a few sensational headlines to the contrary.) She then wrote what she calls “a very long e-mail” about the workers’ complaints to Iger, who referred her to the head of human resources. A second e-mail to Iger went unreturned.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Bob Iger (left) and George Lucas (right) sit inside a Star Wars-themed ride at Disney World
Photo by HANDOUT / GETTY IMAGES.

So, while Disney may have been surprised by the question, she was not unprepared for it. The company released a statement in April highlighting Disneyland’s starting hourly wage of $15 and the company’s $150 million employee education initiative, and then another in July that characterized her claims on behalf of the park workers as “baseless.” The company declined to comment further, but one insider believes that Disney had unwittingly become involved in a larger labor dispute.

As far as the business press is concerned, Iger might as well walk on water. Since 2005 he has presided over a sixfold increase in total shareholder return and a fourfold increase in market capitalization. He added Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, and Lucasfilm to the company’s portfolio, and he closed a $71 billion merger with 21st Century Fox in March. At press time four of the five highest-grossing movies of the year were Disney releases, and the studio still has a few aces up its sleeve in Q4 (Frozen 2, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker).

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

“I’m sure we could find dozens of CEOs who you could say very clearly don’t deserve what they’re getting,” Sorkin says. “I think the hardest part of this particular argument is that Bob Iger is an extraordinary executive.” He is reportedly also a pretty nice guy. He doesn’t proposition his underlings or throw Louis XIV–themed parties for himself or poison the water supply. So why pick on him?

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
A screenshot of Abigail Disney's twitter thread
Photo by TWITTER.

Disney has a ready answer to that and to a range of other objections, it soon became clear. She spent the next few months both sharpening and broadening her critique, first at a Fast Company panel discussion on “Humane Capitalism,” then in a viral 22-part Twitter thread, then in an op-ed for the Washington Post titled “It’s time to call out Disney—and anyone else rich off their workers’ backs.”

By the time she was called to testify before the House Financial Services Committee in May, she had become the Disney brand’s biggest public relations headache since the alligator that dragged two-year-old Lane Graves into the lagoon at Grand Floridian.

“I hold no personal animus toward Bob Iger nor to anyone else at the Walt Disney Company,” Disney told the committee. “I have repeatedly insisted, in fact, that he and the rest of management at Disney are brilliant.” But as a Disney heir she said she felt “uniquely placed” to speak up. “I know it will get a lot of attention, and hopefully jar a lot of sleepwalkers into consciousness.” (“By that score,” Sorkin says, “she succeeded big time.”) It is time, she said, to ask ourselves “how high a handful should soar as the rest of us watch the American Dream collapse for a large majority of working people?”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Her sister Susan Lord, who owns a restaurant in Los Angeles, says, “I hope people understand that her message is not specifically about the Disney company. It’s about a much larger problem.”

"I don’t think the problem is capitalism; I think it’s fundamentalist capitalism that we’re practicing right now. We need to bring a social and emotional intelligence back into the way we understand the practice of business."

Sitting in her newly renovated Manhattan apartment, Disney tells me, “I don’t think the problem is capitalism; I think it’s fundamentalist capitalism that we’re practicing right now. And every fundamentalism does violence to the text that supports it, right? Because the letter killeth, and the spirit giveth life. We need to bring social and emotional intelligence back into the way we understand the practice of business.”

It may not have been strictly for effects that Disney invoked the Nazarene to make a point about income inequality. “We were raised in a very observant Catholic family, and I was one of those kids who really listened,” she says. “I took the Sermon on the Mount very seriously. When they told the story about the rich man and the eye of the needle, I actually came home and cried. My mother said, ‘Oh, Abby. That’s just a metaphor.’” Disney is no longer a believer, but she recently started attending services at the non-creedal Judson Memorial Church in downtown Manhattan.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Lord recalls that when her sister was a senior in high school, their school’s board fired a number of well-liked teachers en masse. “Abby ended up in the parking lot, standing on a car with a bullhorn leading the students to revolt against what had happened,” she says. “As the Irish say, she’s her own self entirely.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Disney, who was raised in Los Angeles, graduated from high school in 1978. “That period was a low, low point for the company. It was Tron and The Black Cauldron,” she says. “If you’re a teenager and you’ve got this last name, it’s the most uncool thing on earth.” That fall she enrolled at Yale, where “everybody was all snooty and read Schopenhauer, and Disney couldn’t be more low culture.”

“Disneyfied” had become a fashionable descriptor in academic circles. “I had to work extra hard to legitimize myself,” she says, and the surest means to legitimacy was grad school. Disney soon had an MA from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Columbia, both in American and English literature.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Roy E. Disney, Abigail’s father, at Disney World in 1996
Photo by POOL HIRES/SEITZ / GETTY IMAGES.

During this period the fortunes of the Walt Disney Company—which narrowly averted a hostile takeover attempt by the financier Saul Steinberg—began to turn around dramatically under CEO Michael Eisner (who was brought over from Paramount by Abigail’s father, Roy E. Disney, in 1984) and Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. There followed a series of aggressive acquisitions (Miramax, ESPN, ABC) and a string of hit movies (The Little MermaidThe Lion King). Roy E. bought himself a private 737, outfitted with a queen bed and a shower.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

But Eisner fell out with Katzenberg, Steve Jobs (whose animation studio, Pixar, had a distribution deal with Disney), and eventually Roy E. “My father fought to bring Michael Eisner in, and then fought to force him out,” Disney says. In 2003, Roy E. resigned from the board; in an open letter to Eisner, he said the company had become “rapacious, soulless, and always looking for the quick buck.” He registered the domain ­savedisney.com and rallied the shareholders to his side.

“I called [my father] and said, ‘I want to help you,’” Disney says. “Disney’s one of the most widely held stocks in the world. That meant we had to make the case for the pension funds, but we also made the case to rank-and-file shareholders who had five shares.” Eisner resigned the following year, and Iger was elevated from COO to CEO—a promotion that Disney could be said to have had a small hand in. Eisner stayed quiet about the incident, apart from telling a reporter that Roy E. “could be a troublemaker.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

“What my father did is a great illustration of why it’s important to have a family voice in a company like this,” she says. “Because people who came out of MBA programs are not really going to care about the soul and the mission of the place the way the family will. We shouldn’t run the place. But I do believe there should be some voice of the family as a kind of Jiminy Cricket around there.”

Roy E. was the last Disney to hold a senior management position.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Walt Disney Plays the ukulele on a beach in Hawaii in 1939, while his brother Roy O. Disney (Abigail’s grandfather) takes a picture
Photo by BETTMANN / GETTY IMAGES.

Today the descendants of Walt and Roy O. Disney own less than 3 percent of the company’s shares. Disney has said she is worth “around $120 million” and estimates that she has given away $70 million over the past 30 years to such causes as the Global Fund for Women and Peace Is Loud.

In the course of “do-gooding around New York City,” she got invited to join a group of women on a trip to Liberia in 2006, which had just come out of a civil war and a period of brutal military dictatorship. There she met the peace activist (and future Nobel laureate) Leymah Gbowee, who became the subject of the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which Disney herself produced. Up to that point, she had been a stay-at-home mom to her four children. “It was really a lucky break,” she says. “If I’d been left to my own devices, I don’t know if I ever would have figured out my life.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

She has since produced dozens of documentaries and directed one, 2015’s ­Emmy-winning The Armor of Light, about the evangelical minister Robert Schenck’s change of heart on gun control. “We couldn’t be more opposite in so many ways, religiously, politically, culturally—certainly in terms of our economic status,” Schenck says. “But through this project, which I reluctantly took on, we forged a friendship. And that friendship took me on an odyssey that precipitated a huge shift in my opinions on a whole range of things.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

In 2017, Disney was approached by ­Killer Content co-founder Adrienne ­­Becker with a plan to buy the Weinstein Company library and channel the profits from reselling it to victims of sexual assault. “I just thought that was genius,” Disney says. But the women grew disillusioned with the process, which they came to feel favored a rival bidder, so they decided to transition what they had taken to calling Project Level Forward into ­Level Forward Inc.

They backed Broadway’s recent revisionist staging of Oklahoma!, which won a Tony for best revival, as well as the one-­woman show What the Constitution Means to Me, which was nominated for best play. Their next show, the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill, comes to Broadway in November.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
Abigail Disney speaks onstage at the Women at Sundance Brunch at the Sundance Institute in 2018
Photo by PHILLIP FARAONE / GETTY IMAGES.

Level Forward is both a production company and a laboratory for its ­founders’ political agenda. Their Gun Neutral initiative, for example, funds the destruction of 10 illegal firearms for every prop gun used on screen or stage. “The things that we’re doing are emboldened by Abby’s acute fear management,” Becker says. “Abby likes to say, ‘There’s no such thing as courage. It’s really about managing fear.’ ”

Disney’s next documentary as director, as yet untitled, will be an in-depth look at income inequality. “I’m trying to get it out really quickly before the next election,” she says, “because I think this issue is going to be very prominent.” When asked about 2020, she expresses admiration for Elizabeth Warren but says she isn’t ready just yet to commit to a single candidate. “I’m waiting for the field to break out,” she says, adding that she knows who she won’t support.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

“I’m not a socialist. I think capitalism works very well when it’s done with a human angle. We have a class of people who are living so far above everyone else, it’s corrosive to democracy.”

When I start to say, “So your position is that if you like capitalism—” Disney is quick to finish the sentence.

“You better fix it.”

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Hair by John Ruidant for Evo Haircare at See Management. Makeup by MaryGene at See Management.

This story appears in the October 2019 issue of Town & Country.

<>*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

<>*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

Comments
Recommended Videos
About The Author
Ash Carter
View Other Articles From Ash Carter
Comments
Latest Stories
 
Share
In partnership with Rockwell Land, Town&Country celebrates the unique qualities that the south of Manila has to offer.
 
Share
For starters, good quality and design are aspects they will appreciate.
 
Share
The first-ever Filipino Netflix movie imparts nuggets of wisdom to the social media-crazed generation.
 
Share
 
Share
Because the holiday season isn't complete without a movie marathon.
 
Share
Looking to grow your own vintage watch collection? Start with these classic picks.
 
Share
 
Share
Her portrayal of a masked mercenary in this month’s Rise of Skywalker is one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Keri Russell prepares for the big reveal at a brownstone in Brooklyn, a galaxy far, far away.
 
Share
Take a ride on a train through Asia or take a trip to a champagne chalet, the options are endless.
 
Share
Alcohol-free traveling is an emerging trend, but there’s much more to this phenomenon than meets the eye.
Load More Articles
CONNECT WITH US