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August 1, 2022IM -
Working to secure our rights as performing and recording musicians is a crucial part of what we do, and stories of successful organizing campaigns are at the heart of unionism and activism. Those successes feel even sweeter when the campaigns are won against big corporations—and they don’t get much bigger than The Walt Disney Company.
Trumpet player Evan Walsh, a musician at Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, spearheaded a successful grassroots organizing campaign in which musicians who perform as the Toy Soldiers in the Christmas Fantasy Parade won the right to be included as full and equal members of their bargaining unit through Local 7 (Orange County, CA).
“The Christmas Fantasy Parade is one of Disneyland’s longest-running productions,” says trumpet player Evan Walsh, who has marched with the parade every year since his first involvement with Disney in 2013. “The group is known as the Toy Soldiers, or Toys for short, since the musicians perform in character, based on the toy soldiers from the 1961 film Babes in Toyland.”
Walsh says the parade has always been staffed with student musicians. He was a trumpet performance major at California State University, Long Beach, when he started. Now, he makes his home in San Diego, but commutes 80 miles each way to take part in the parade, because he absolutely loves doing it and enjoys working with the entire production team.
Problems began to surface, Walsh says, when Disney management failed to keep pay and working conditions in step with the changing job requirements. “Back in the early days, we did one show at night and a couple per day on the weekends. As the years progressed, however, the shows increased in frequency, to the point that this past year required 10-hour shifts, including an afternoon performance as well as a night performance.”
“We were still designated as students,” he says. “But the workload was absolutely what you would require from professional musicians.” As an example, Walsh says the parade calls for 10 trumpet players and two drummers on each show—but this past year, the unit only had a cast of 15.
“Most of us were working six days a week to cover all the shifts. We had very little rotation, and no time off. We would get called in, and if weather wiped out the performances, we would get sent home without pay,” he says. The pay itself was also a gray area. “It was different every year, depending on how Disney management would read the contract. Every year we had to battle a new interpretation of the contract and didn’t have any protections or voice to fight any decisions made.”
On top of all that, adds Walsh, the cast was supposed to be comprised of students—but finding students who had the required availability and flexibility was nearly impossible. “It was a nightmare just trying to staff the parade.”
After years of performing, Walsh became a lead in 2018. “That’s Disney speak for a manager of the group,” he says. “As time went on, it became clear that the demand for Christmas entertainment at Disneyland was growing. Our roles required more time, and it was not necessarily a student job anymore.”
Walsh started to think about ways to address the situation. Understanding that full protection under the AFM was the way to go, he reached out to Edmund Velasco, then vice president of Local 7.
“There was a special provision in the Disney contract allowing the park to hire student musicians,” says Velasco, now Local 7 president. “Some of them had been performing in the Christmas Fantasy Parade for four or five years. Many were no longer officially students, but they loved the job so much that they would enroll in one class just to keep their spot. Walsh rightly asked that, since so many of his colleagues were no longer students, why couldn’t they get the full protections of the agreement?”
Negotiations were scheduled with Disney and the local—but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “We filed for two extensions of the contract. During the pandemic I became president of Local 7 and I used the time to start prepping for actual negotiations, with a goal to get Evan and his colleagues qualified as actual members of the CBA,” says Velasco.
He credits Local 7 Secretary-Treasurer Tammy Noreyko for pushing to organize the Toys for years prior to the current negotiation cycle. “Tammy knew their history and had been an advocate for these musicians for some time before I got involved,” says Velasco.
Velasco calls Walsh a natural leader. “Evan had basically organized his colleagues before he ever came to me. He informed me that all the Toys in the parade agreed that they had been treated subpar, compared to the others in the CBA, and they wanted to get the same treatment as the other musicians working at Disneyland.”
For his part, Walsh says he approached discussions with the group by talking to them about things beyond just money. “They all love the work, but they wanted more stability. We discussed the issue of job security, and how getting union protection would help us achieve that, giving us a job we could look forward to even more.”
Percussionist and Local 7 member Seth Marshall, a snare drummer with the Toy Soldiers, says he understood the value of gaining AFM protection from his experiences working in other union roles in the park. “The Federation is a strong union that fights tooth and nail for its members, and I wanted to help Evan make sure that our performers were getting the pay, hours, and protections we were owed,” says Marshall.
Walsh was in close communication with Velasco throughout the entire process, and as such, had the most up-to-date information to impart to his colleagues. “I just made sure to reinforce all the great reasons why unionizing was a step in the right direction for us,” Walsh says.
Fellow trumpet player Emily Carpentier, also of Local 7, first started her Disney journey in 2019, playing trumpet in the Disneyland All-American College Band, another Disney student group. “I loved it so much that I immediately auditioned for and joined the Toy Soldiers,” she says. “I knew having the Toys become a union group would be a significant step for us. It would also validate that our hard work as musicians was not only appreciated, but fairly compensated.”
Carpentier comments that Walsh played a central role in the whole process. “He worked many hours fighting for us and was in constant contact with the local officers, who were always on our side.”
When negotiations finally started, they involved some frank discussion on both sides. “My relationship with the labor relations person at Disney was such that we had some honest conversation about the situation,” says Velasco. “The other side at first tried to keep them as student musicians. But they were taking liberties with the contract. For instance, the Toys could not perform more than 50 days consecutively. If management wanted to go longer than that, they’d put a day’s break in the middle to extend the time, and then pretend they weren’t violating the agreement. They might not have been violating the word of the contract, but they were certainly violating its spirit. They also wanted to add 10 days onto the contract.”
“Another example happened in the previous season,” adds Walsh. “The group was given less than two weeks’ notice that our run would end 10 days early, while the rest of the production cast would continue to finish the season. This left many musicians with no work on New Year’s Eve or Day, after having already set time aside.”
He also says Disney fans began to notice the absence of Toy Soldiers from the production on dark days. “These fans would leave online comments asking where the Toys were, fearful the soldiers were gone forever.”
A fan favorite, Disney continues to utilize the Toy Soldiers as a primary marketing tool for the parade and the park’s holiday season, from advertising material to merchandising. The group can also be seen on the annual nationally televised Disneyland holiday broadcast on Christmas day.
Says Walsh, “It’s a lot of work. How can they expect students to do all of that? It’s a professional musician job.”
Walsh went on to point out the stark differences between the All-American College Band and the Toy Soldiers. Unlike the former, the Toys had no formal educational component. “The All-American College Band is a summer program for college students to perform in a dedicated ensemble in different sets around the park,” he explains. “Clinicians take part, and the union speaks with members of the All-American College Band about unionism and activism.”
The All-American College Band is also sponsored by Yamaha, so there are workshops with Yamaha artists, and the band members play Yamaha instruments. “That’s a big difference from the Toy Soldiers. We pointed this out during negotiations, and Disney realized they had a choice: either make us more like the All-American College Band, meaning more educational in nature, or more professional and entertainment-oriented.”
“In the end,” adds Velasco, “Disney agreed that Evan’s reasoning was too sound to argue against.” Velasco says this was an enormous step in the right direction for Disney, and he hopes it bodes well for future negotiations. “We are always working toward better relations with Disney. With the recent pro-labor legislative changes in California, we feel the time is right to work with these groups in a way we haven’t been able to before.”
Walsh says his first official negotiation with Disney was a terrific experience. “Ultimately, both sides understood the situation, and nobody was offended.” He adds that, because of the pandemic, all negotiation sessions were online. “That actually allowed more Disney musicians to participate on a new level and we included everyone who wanted to take part, including those on tour, or having a day off, or even joining in from a break room between shows.”
Walsh says, during the process, he frequently recalled one of Velasco’s favorite sayings: “stronger together.” “It’s totally true. Disney heard and understood that we wanted to be treated more fairly and equitably, and they worked with us. This upcoming year will be a discovery year to see how the contract is followed.”
The bonus, he concludes, is that his colleagues are now all union musicians. “Aside from our work with the Toys, we’re now looking forward to this leading to new opportunities with other union work in Orange County,” says Walsh.