Labor unions are set to restart negotiations with Disney over a new 2019 contract for workers at Disney World in Orlando, Florida on February 12, after months of battling over wage increases. Meanwhile, Disney announced on January 23 that it would be granting $1,000 bonuses to 125,000 workers, citing the Trump tax cut as the reason for the bonuses. ”
“The $1,000 bonus should automatically apply to Disney’s unionized workforce,” said Unite Here Local 737 President Jeremy Haicken in a statement. He said the money should be provided with no strings attached, and should not be a factor in ongoing wage negotiations.
Paying the $1,000 bonus to 125,000 domestic employees will cost Disney $125 million, the statement noted. Disney announced that it will also invest $50 million to create a new higher education program for employees.
The company’s estimated windfall from the Trump tax cuts is over $2 billion annually, leaving it approximately $1,825,000,000 unshared with workers. “The bonuses are one-time payouts, not a permanent solution,” Eric Clinton, President of United Here Local 362, told me in an interview.
Leading up to Christmas, six unions representing 38,000 Disney workers overwhelmingly rejected a company proposal that would have increased its minimum wage by about 50 cents per hour. Ninety-three percent of the union’s dues paying members voted “no.” The company’s current minimum wage is $10 an hour, with unions fighting for $15 an hour.
A worker needs to earn at least $15.87 an hour to afford an average 1-bedroom apartment in Orlando, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Despite these economic realities, Disney is insisting on keeping employees on poverty wages.
Disney’s parks regularly make $1 billion in profit per quarter. The company recently acquired 21st Century Fox for $52 billion, a merger that’s estimated to boost Disney’s annual revenue to $25 billion. As the largest single employer in Central Florida, Disney has the power to set local wage standards. When Disney last increased its minimum wage in 2014, to $10 an hour, Universal Studios Resort — whose workers are not unionized — followed suit.
According to Haciken, the 2014 contract leaves the minimum wage at $10 an hour until 2019. At that pace, it wouldn’t reach $15 an hour until 2028.
Disney cast members are bound to strict employee guidelines to preserve the park’s pristine public brand image as “the happiest place on Earth.” Rules include a ban on ever breaking character, learning a specific signature for autographs linked to each specific character, pointing with two fingers instead of one to give directions, and never answering a question with “I don’t know.” Appearance requirements reflect military regulations: no piercings, visible tattoos, no longer hair for men and only neutral nail polish for women.
Many costumes are hot and uncomfortable in Florida’s heat, yet workers are subjected to long shifts and rigid schedules. Last year, DIsney was forced by the U.S. Department of Labor to pay nearly $4 million in stolen wages for making employees to pay for their own costumes. In 2015, Disney laid off up to 300 IT workers after forcing them –by threatening to revoke severances and bonuses — to train foreign replacements on H-1B Visas.
The company has a long record of paying terrible wages to its workers, who must work second jobs or depend on charity and government assistance to make ends meet. Over the past two decades, Disney has implemented a pay scale that prevents new employees from eventually earning a living wage. “Prior to 1999, a newly hired Cast Member knew that after a few years of hard work, they would rise from starting pay to the top of the pay scale,” Haicken said. “Today, however, up to 18 pay rates exist within each job [category] and new employees have no hope of moving up the pay scale. Disney’s proposal leaves thousands of Cast Members permanently at the bottom of the pay scale.”
Unions organized protests and rallies during negotiations to send a message to Disney that they didn’t intend to roll over for minor concessions. The most recent union vote to reject Disney’s proposal had a historic turnout from members, in a local fight that is emblematic of the broader efforts to battle income inequality in the United States.