The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Knocking inequality at Disney, Bernie Sanders suggests ‘Avengers’ profits should fund workers’ raises

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at rally in Fort Worth on Thursday. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who is mounting his second bid for the White House, lists nearly two dozen issues on his website that he would like to tackle as president, from fighting for disability rights to empowering tribal nations.

The independent senator teased a new cause on Monday — or, at least, a new tactic in his long-standing crusade against income inequality. He suggested a way of avenging workers at Walt Disney Co., where, last year, the median employee made 1/1,424 as much as Bob Iger, the chief executive of the mass media and entertainment empire. The candidate didn’t don armor, brandish a red-white-and-blue shield or wield an Infinity Stone.

Instead, he wrote on Twitter that more than $1 billion in estimated gross sales from “Avengers: Endgame” — the conclusion to the 11-year superhero epic from Disney’s Marvel Studios — could go to ensuring that workers at the company earned a “middle class wage.” That deed, he said, “would be truly heroic.”

It was unclear how committed Sanders was to this proposition. (Disney, meanwhile, didn’t immediately return a request for comment.)

So, too, it remained a mystery whether Sanders had caught a glimpse of the on-screen action, perhaps finding in a dark cinema a 182-minute respite from the bright lights of the campaign trail. His campaign kicked off a national organizing drive this weekend with about 5,000 house parties across the country.

Five thousand is also how many last-minute showtimes AMC Theatres added in the United States — bringing its total number of showings to more than 63,000.

The superhero film made more than $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming the only movie in history to surpass $1 billion in its debut. Its predecessor, “Avengers: Infinity War,” previously held the record for highest-ever box-office total for opening weekend, bringing in $640 million last year. In the secondary market maintained on sites such as eBay, tickets were listed for as much as $500.

For some, these eye-popping figures were incongruous with another startling statistic, publicized earlier this month.

An heir to the company, Abigail Disney, said she had figured out — after a bonus awarded to Iger brought his total compensation to $65.6 million — that he could have handed out a 15 percent raise to everyone who worked at Disneyland and still pocketed $10 million. In a conversation on “humane capitalism,” the independent filmmaker and activist called Iger’s pay “insane.” She said her view had been shaped by encounters with Disneyland employees in Anaheim, Calif., where reduced benefits have left some straining to pay for basics, such as medicine.

“So there’s a point at which there’s just too much going around the top of the system into this class of people who — I’m sorry this is radical — have too much money,” she said. “There is such a thing.”

Her observation about financial excess has become less radical, in part owing to an increasingly vocal left-wing flank of the Democratic Party rolling out new proposals to tax the rich to fund an expansion of social programs, from guaranteed medical care to debt-free college. That early polling places Sanders near the front of the pack of 2020 aspirants is a sign that his ideas are hardly outside the mainstream.

The company responded to the Disney heir’s comments by saying it had made “historic investments” in its workers, including by “implementing a starting hourly wage of $15 at Disneyland that’s double the federal minimum wage.” That is less than the $20 sought by unions after a survey of 5,000 workers at Disneyland found last year that the resort’s workforce was under significant financial strain. Eleven percent said they had experienced homelessness in the previous two years.

The company, in a statement following the criticism from one of its beneficiaries, also cited a $150 million education initiative giving employees the chance to obtain a college or vocational degree. And it noted that Iger’s earnings in 2018 were tied to performance as well as to a stock grant associated with the company’s $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox.

The granddaughter of Roy Disney, who founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio along with his brother Walt Disney in 1923, was not satisfied by that response. She intensified her criticism of the company in a column in The Washington Post, explaining that she felt obligated to speak out about the “naked indecency” of the chief executive’s remuneration.

But her indictment wasn’t of Iger alone. (In fact, she says, “I like Bob Iger.”) It was instead of a nexus of political and economic forces that, in her telling, rewards only self-interest.

“We are increasingly a lopsided, barbell nation, where the middle class is shrinking, a very few, very affluent people own a great deal and the majority have relatively little,” she wrote. “What is more, as their wealth has grown, the super-rich have invested heavily in politicians, policies and social messaging to pad their already grotesque advantages.”

Specifically, she called on the company to set aside half of the amount it would otherwise funnel into executive bonuses and instead give the bottom 10 percent of its workers a $2,000 bonus.

The extra cash flow, like precious stones, “could mean a ticket out of poverty or debt,” she argued. The $1.2 billion in “Endgame” money targeted by Sanders would probably do more.

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