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Abigail Disney turns critical lens on her family's company in new doc

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you've ever been to a Disney theme park, especially as a child, there's a good chance you were swept away by the magic, which was, of course, what founders Walt and Roy Disney had in mind when they created the parks decades ago. But a new documentary produced and directed by Roy's granddaughter, filmmaker Abigail Disney, says the living conditions of too many of the company's employees are a far cry from the enchanted fantasy they work so hard to maintain - driving the shuttles, cleaning the parks and dressing up as much-loved characters. In "The American Dream And Other Fairy Tales." Disney argues that too many of the company's workers just cannot make ends meet, that the company's own policies and practices, including vast disparities between executive and worker pay and aggressive lobbying for municipal tax breaks and other publicly funded benefits contributes to - bluntly - degradation and despair for the people who make the Disney experience magical for others.

Abigail Disney is with us now to tell us more about the film. Abigail Disney, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ABIGAIL DISNEY: It's such a pleasure.

MARTIN: There's a powerful scene at the beginning of the film where you are sitting with a group of Disney employees who are organizing for better working conditions. And you ask them, how many of you have slept in your car? How many of you have had to use food stamps? How many of you have gone without medical care? And so many of the employees raise their hands, you know, multiple times. It's disheartening. I mean, one woman talks about how she basically has made the decision not to have children because she doesn't think she could support them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE AMERICAN DREAM AND OTHER FAIRY TALES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I am somebody who doesn't have kids. I don't have the finances to take care of a child in the way that I would like to. It's affected my ability to family plan and to look towards my future as far as my personal life. And it's - you know, this is not where I thought I'd be at 33.

MARTIN: How did that come about to begin with? How did you find each other, I guess, is the question?

DISNEY: Well, I suppose it started with one worker finding me on Facebook. Ralph (ph), one of the people in that circle, had sent me a message personally on Facebook. I never read my Facebook messages. And yet for some reason that day, I opened up his and I read it. And it really touched me. And I have to say, I just knew that I had some kind of obligation to him. And I suggested I come out and hear it from everybody. And so he put that circle together along with two of the unions. And luckily, everybody trusted me with what was going on. And, you know, I have to tell you, at a personal level, I was horrified.

MARTIN: In the film, you talk about that the pay is just - first of all, it's just not a livable wage. But you also talked about scheduling, like dynamic scheduling, that makes it hard for people to plan their lives or even get a second job if they need one. That's a relatively new phenomenon. Tell me about that and how that came up as a serious quality-of-life issue.

DISNEY: You know, it's funny because the changes that have happened in the American corporation over the last 50 years are partly spiritual. There was a shift in the way workers were understood. And they stopped being seen as partners, and they started being seen as simply an expense. And as part of that sort of draining of the humanity, one by one, things got introduced. You know, pensions got stripped away. Health care became difficult to have. Pay, of course, there was pressure on pay, but lots of pressure on productivity.

And dynamic scheduling was one of those many things that got introduced along the pathway to where we are now. And as quickly as it was introduced in business schools across the country, it got swallowed up at McDonald's and Amazon and other places because it was a great way to keep your employees ever on their toes, unable to find other jobs and unable to have the wherewithal to organize and object.

It became clear to me when I talked to these folks that Disney didn't want people to stay for a long time at the company. And of all the things, that was one of the ones that really, really bothered me the most, because it used to be a lifetime job. It used to be a place where they wanted you there because the history made you a better employee. But the way employers look at employees now, the longer they have someone there, the more comfortable they become organizing, the more powerful they are at organizing others.

MARTIN: Recognizing, as you say very clearly in the film, that Disney is not alone in these practices that you find so disturbing, what do you want Disney to do? And do you think that this film might make a difference?

DISNEY: I hope it makes a difference. What I really want is for Disney to be the point at which everybody breaks. Like, people look at Disney and say, well, this is wildly inappropriate. Perhaps it's wildly inappropriate in all these other places, too, we just couldn't see it as clearly because we expect less of Amazon, and we expect less of McDonald's and so forth.

And what I want Americans to do is to recognize that it wasn't always this way. It does not have to be this way. And in order for it to change is - we all need to force a reordering of our priorities and a rethinking of the point of an economy. That sounds crazy ambitious. I understand that. And I know that people give me a hard time for not having a very specific ask. But a hole this deep takes a long time to dig. It's going to take a long time and a lot of work to dig back out of it.

MARTIN: You remember that - there's a scene in the film where you are speaking at a congressional hearing. And one of the questions that's continually directed at you and that others who talk about these issues is that this is socialism. So given that Disney, you know, is in Florida - and one of the properties is in Florida - there are a lot of people who have fled, you know, communists and socialist regimes there and consider this toxic. What do you say to people who say that that's a slippery slope and that the alternatives are worse, I guess, would be the question?

DISNEY: Yeah. You know, I think that people are worried about a regime of redistribution. And I think we should be thinking about pre-distribution. Like, where the money is going now is all to one place. It's all directed to one class. So yeah, that's a long way from socialism. Maybe if we structured things differently and the money went more directly, more evenly to more people, there'd be less of a hankering for socialism, because that fear of socialism also accompanies in this culture a pretty large group of people who are starting to think that might be the only way. So if you want capitalism, then you had better work right now to fix it. Because if not, Gen Z and a lot of millennials are ready to change it. And I would prefer to see a reformed and humane version of capitalism than socialism any day.

MARTIN: So have you heard from anybody at Disney since the film came out, especially the people you had personal relationships with?

DISNEY: I have not heard a peep from anybody inside the company. It's pretty easy to reach out to me. They know where I am. I would love to talk.

MARTIN: That's Abigail Disney. She directed and produced "The American Dream And Other Fairy Tales" along with Kathleen Hughes. It was released this month. And it's available on streaming services this weekend. Abigail Disney, thanks so much for talking with us about this.

DISNEY: Thanks so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.