Disney Theme Park Workers Are Picketing for Better Pay as Profits Soar

February 27, 2018, 7:19 PM UTC

Walt Disney Co. is finding itself in heated talks with union workers over pay and other issues as profits at the company’s theme-park division soar.

Employees have picketed outside Walt Disney World and complained in writing about being shut out of Disneyland for the annual holiday party. Last week, unions representing park workers in Florida and California filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over Disney’s decision to withhold a special $1,000 tax-reform bonus while contracts talks are underway, saying the company discriminated against those staffers.

“Here is a company that has the best movies about how we’ve got to help one another and how racism is wrong and how we’ve got to take care of our toys,” said Glynndana Shevlin, a 58-year-old who’s worked for almost 30 years at Disney. She makes $15.70 an hour serving wine and is among those waiting for her bonus. “I don’t feel like they take care of me when it comes to my own life.”

Disney said in a statement that, as required by law, compensation packages must be negotiated with the unions, and that the bonus is part of what’s under negotiation.

“We presented fair and compelling offers to unions on both coasts, and we hope they will reach timely agreements with us on behalf of their members,” the company said.

Parks have emerged as a star in Disney’s business lineup. Profit jumped 21 percent to $1.35 billion in the latest quarter, making the division the only one of four to show earnings growth. Moreover, income surpassed that of TV, Disney’s top-earner for years, as rising programming costs and declining viewers continue to eat away at that business.

“If there was ever an opportunity for aggressive union action, now is the time because the labor market has become so tight,” said William Gould, a former chairman of the NLRB and now a professor emeritus at Stanford University.

Unions representing some 38,000 park workers in Orlando reopened wage talks last year. Several hundred marched near Disney World in October and in December Orlando workers rejected a company proposal to boost the lowest wage by $1 over two years to $11 an hour because it would still leave new hires at $10, according to Jeremy Haicken, president of Unite Here Local 737, which represents food and housekeeping workers.

Overall, the union is seeking a raise to as much as $15 an hour from an average of $10.71, Haicken said, and plans another, larger, protest next month.

“The company keeps increasing ticket prices, meanwhile the quality of life of our members is decreasing,” Haicken said.

Orlando Giant

Disney is the largest employer in Orlando, where it owns four theme parks, and in Anaheim, California, where it owns two. The company is in the middle of a spending boom on its parks, with projects going up around the world. They include two “Star Wars”-themed areas slated for the U.S. in 2019, a “Toy Story” land at the Hollywood Studios in Orlando in June and a Pixar-themed redesign of the amusement pier at California Adventure. The company spent $2.4 billion on capital projects at its domestic parks in the last fiscal year.

Disney on Tuesday announced a 2 billion euro ($2.4 billion) expansion of its Paris parks.

On the West Coast, 11 unions representing Disney park workers formed a coalition to speak to the company collectively, an arrangement similar to one already in place in Florida. The Coalition of Resort Labor Unions held its first meeting in August 2016 after the company sought to tighten rules on sick days and other time off, according to Randy Sayer, an official with the Make-Up & Hair Stylists Guild in Burbank, California.

The coalition sent two letters to the company in recent months to complain that they weren’t quickly notified of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at Disneyland in November and to protest that workers and their families were limited to the California Adventure park during the annual holiday party. Employees could previously take their families to either park for free and the change was particularly hard on make-up artists who couldn’t take their loved ones to shows they worked on, Sayer said.

Other Passes

Park employees were able to use other passes to bring their families to Disneyland for free during the holidays, a spokeswoman said.

The company has refused to recognize the coalition, according to Sayer. “There’s no legal obligation for them to recognize us,” he said. “We wanted to reach out to the company. We offered an olive branch. They declined. We were disappointed.”

Unite Here’s 2,700 hotel employees at the Disneyland resort in Anaheim have been without a contract since January 2017 and have been working under monthly contract extensions. Contracts applying to thousands more California staffers expire in September, and the unions have begun surveying employees as to what they should ask for.

Through its long history, Disney has had rough patches with workers. Founder Walt Disney fumed over an animator’s strike in 1941 that was ultimately settled by a federal mediator. As recently as 2008, several dozen park employees, many of them in costume, were arrested for blocking traffic outside Disneyland.

Minimum Wage

Disney responded to a nationally directed labor campaign in 2014 when it agreed to a $10-an-hour minimum wage for workers. Now union activists across the country are pressing companies for more in a campaign known as the ‘‘Fight for $15,” which has successfully spurred cities and private companies to establish higher wage floors.

“Everyone knows that workers are asking for $15 and getting it in many places,” said Heidi Shierholz, who served as chief economist in President Barack Obama’s Labor Department and now directs policy for the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. “It makes it more difficult for a large company, when workers ask for that, to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do it here.’”