Abigail Disney took her criticism of the pay gap between CEOs and workers to Capitol Hill Wednesday, telling lawmakers that the country needs to rethink the system.
“We have chased large swaths of Americans into a box canyon and then blamed them for being trapped,” she told members of the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing on strengthening the rights and protections of workers.
Over the past month, Disney – the granddaughter of Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy Disney – has drawn attention for publicly criticizing the disparity between the $65 million paid to CEO Bob Iger and what its average workers make.
“Bob Iger is a nice man, a brilliant manager, and so are most CEOs. But corporate excess has become so normalized that they and their peers can’t really see the problem anymore,” she said Wednesday.
“We need to change the way we understand and practice capitalism,” Disney told members of the House committee.
“Yes, managers have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders. But they also have a legal and moral responsibility to deliver returns to shareholders without trampling on the dignity and rights of their employees and other stakeholders,” she added.
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, she challenged the company to redirect half of its executive bonus pool into $2,000 checks for the lowest-paid 10% of its 200,000-person workforce.
The company has pushed back, saying it pays workers above the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, and a starting hourly wage of $15 at Disneyland in California.
“Disney has added more than 70,000 jobs during Mr. Iger’s tenure and has made historic investments to expand the earning potential and upward mobility of our workers,” a Walt Disney Company spokesman said in a statement, adding that the company has committed $150 million to a program that pays for workers to earn a high school, vocational, or college degree.
Iger, who became CEO in 2005, saw his payout boosted last year largely by long-term incentives associated with his contract extension, which was announced alongside the deal for Disney to purchase most of 21st Century Fox.
Abigail Disney argues that there is nothing inherently wrong with a big payday for executives as long as workers can support themselves. She urged lawmakers to consider examining the pay ratio between CEOs and their lowest-paid full-time workers, rather than that between the C-suite and median income-level employees – which some Democrats have called for.
“The median ratio is not a helpful ratio. It treats the lowest paid worker as if they were invisible,” she said.
Some Republican members of the committee challenged Disney to say what pay is fair for a CEO, and what rate is a livable wage. She said, in response, that not every CEO should be paid the same and a liveable wage is not the same in every city.
“The point I am trying to make is we are throwing around numbers here on appropriate CEO pay, what CEO pay should be … but there aren’t any specifics on how we will do that,” said Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, adding that an attempt to figure out what those rates are would result in “socialism.”
The hearing also addressed a Democratic proposal to require public companies to disclose more information on employee pay.
Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy asked Disney what she earns and what she pays her lowest-level worker in her home. Disney said she earns between $5 million and $6 million, pays her her lowest-level worker about $75,000 a year – and donates between $7 million and $8 million annually.
Later in the day, a spokeswoman for Disney said she misheard the question and has other employees whom she pays less, though she pays her housekeeper $75,000.
Republicans also drew attention to the fact that the Democratic committee leaders allowed Disney to have a private film crew at the hearing.
Disney said she is hoping to make a documentary on income inequality and that footage from the hearing might be useful.
When asked if the filming would be for a for-profit entity, Disney said the film might end up making money but that she wouldn’t see any of it.
The heiress to the Disney family fortune has also spoken publicly about how uncomfortable she is with her own wealth. In March, she told New York Magazine that she started giving away money in her 20s and stopped using her family’s private jet.