Disney World workers overwhelmingly ‘stand together, vote no’ on company’s offer, planning to fight for better pay

Disney World workers in Orlando sent an unambiguous message to the company, whose Parks division made an operating profit of $12 billion last year

click to enlarge Diego Henry Jr. (center), surrounded by Disney cast members, celebrates unions' decision to reject Disney's offer and fight for higher wages. - photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
photo by McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Diego Henry Jr. (center), surrounded by Disney cast members, celebrates unions' decision to reject Disney's offer and fight for higher wages.

After several months of negotiations, Disney World workers in Orlando, Florida, overwhelmingly rejected the Walt Disney Co.'s "best offer" of a $1 pay raise this year for thousands of workers fighting to survive in a region of the United States that's experiencing a cost-of-living crisis.

Over the course of two days, more than 14,200 Disney World workers in Orlando voted on whether to accept the company's contract proposal — and in an unambiguous rebuff, 96% said no.

As the results were announced, at roughly 7 p.m. Friday, a crowded room of well over a hundred cast members wearing union shirts (and some still in their work uniforms) erupted in applause, whooping and hollering in celebration of the resounding rejection.
"This vote sends a clear message that Disney workers are united in our belief that Disney can do better and Disney must do better," said Matt Hollis, president of the Service Trades Council Union and national vice president for the Transportation Communications Union.

According to the STCU, a coalition of six labor unions in Central Florida that represent 45,000 Disney World workers, Disney's offer would have left 30,000 Disney World workers behind, with just a $1 pay raise this year. Prior to the vote, all six unions had urged union members to reject the contract, arguing that Disney's so-called "best offer" wasn't  sufficient to keep up with rising inflation, higher rent and basic living expenses, and that workers had the power and leverage to fight for more.

Some union workers, such as culinary staff, would have seen the immediate $3 pay raise that the unions have been fighting for since August, but workers still resoundingly voted down the offer, in solidarity with those who wouldn't have received that increase.
A spokesperson for the Walt Disney Co. told Orlando Weekly in an emailed response to the vote Saturday morning, “Our strong offer provides more than 30,000 Cast Members a nearly 10% on average raise immediately, as well as retroactive increased pay in their paychecks, and we are disappointed that those increases are now delayed.”

Paul Cox, president of IATSE Local 631, which represents stage technicians, costuming, wardrobe, and cosmetology workers at Disney World, cast doubt on the validity of that 10% figure, however, in a tweet. "$1 for someone making $15 is not 10%, it is 6.6%, that is some mighty large rounding that @WaltDisneyWorld is doing there. If it is “nearly 10% “ then Disney should have no issue meeting the Union’s proposal," wrote Cox.

According to the company, 25% of non-tipped, workers represented by the STCU would have reached $20 an hour wages in the first year of the contract. Cast members would also have received retroactive increased pay dating back to October 2022, starting at a minimum of $700 for those working at least 40 hours per week, and 8 weeks of paid family leave that the unions had fought for. But that's all not necessarily off the bargaining table now, and could still make it into the final contract.

The unions' previous contract expired back in October, although that has been extended until a new deal can be reached. Based on surveys and discussions with union members, the STCU has been fighting for an immediate $3 pay raise for all union members, including employees such as park greeters, culinary staff, character performers, stage technicians, custodial workers, bus drivers for the parks and more.

That $3 raise would bring the starting wage to $18 an hour this year, up from $15 for most, with additional raises to come over the course of the contract. Workers say that's the least Disney can do.

Sean Hopper, a 36-year-old who works at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Disney's Hollywood Studios and shop steward for his union, Unite Here Local 362, told Orlando Weekly this week he knows of cast members who are homeless, who sleep in their cars, and who cut down on food costs by eating only cheap ramen packs. Many have families they work to care for, and have long commutes.
Hopper himself, arms adorned with Star Wars tattoos, is married and a father of three kids. All three have Star Wars-themed names. Hopper's always had a soft spot for Disney and the magical experience it can offer for kids and families. Visiting the parks was a highlight of his childhood, and he loves being able to re-create that same kind of experience for others through storytelling.

But, as many workers have said through the contract negotiations process, magic doesn't pay the bills.

Earl Penson, a second-generation Disney employee of 11 years, told Orlando Weekly in November, "I’ve seen grown men break down" because of the financial stress of trying to make ends meet when making just a few dollars above Florida's minimum wage of $11 per hour. (Note: Until September 2021, it was just $8.56 per hour.)

Cast members try to find ways to cut costs, multiple cast members told Orlando Weekly, skipping meals and sometimes working multiple jobs to cover basic needs, like rent, in a region that's home to one of the country's most unaffordable housing markets.

A report released last year by Unite Here Local 737, one of the unions that represents Disney workers, shared that, out of 2,415 tourism workers surveyed (including Disney workers), 69% said they hadn't had the money to pay rent or mortgage costs over the last year. Twenty-six percent said they had to move as a result of rent or mortgage increases, and 45% reported skipping meals to cut costs. 

A living hourly wage for two working adults with one child in Orange County is $32.51, according to MIT's Living Wage Calculator, or $18.85 for a single working adult with no children.

Meanwhile, the Disney Parks' division reported $28 billion in revenue last year and an operating profit of $12 billion. Disney has found the money to pay CEO Bob Iger $27 million, and to gift former CEO Bob Chapek, who was fired in November, a $20 million severance package. During the 2020 election cycle, the "woke" corporation also found the money to give the re-election campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (albeit they're not on good terms at the moment) $50,000 in March 2021, and another $50,000 two years before that.

Diego Henry Jr., a Disney Parks worker of 10 years and shop steward for his union Unite Here Local 362, told Orlando Weekly he was excited about the unions' decision to stand together and reject the contract. He says their fight, thousands of union members strong in a state with just 4.5% union membership, is bigger than Disney.

"This fight is not just for Disney. It starts here, but whatever happens at Disney happens everywhere else," said Henry. In 2018, Disney World workers successfully fought for a $15 minimum wage by 2021, setting a standard for the Central Florida region's tourism industry, ahead of Florida's vote in 2020 to get the entire state on track towards a $15 minimum by 2026.

About 250 Disney cast members in Orlando took a three-day leave last week with their union to set up and conduct the vote at over 100 voting locations across the sprawling Disney Parks property. A wall of stacked boxes, labeled according to where they were placed on the property, created a wall in the Magnolia rooms of the Wyndham Hotel Friday evening, where union members counted each voting card manually.

Hollis, the president of the STCU, told Orlando Weekly that Disney had waged its own campaign to persuade workers to approve the company's "strong offer" this week, pulling individual workers into private meetings, showing up to talk to workers before the starts of their shifts and airing "Vote Yes" propaganda on TV screens in employee break rooms.

While awaiting vote results Friday night, Hopper, the Star War's Galaxy Edge employee, admitted he was exhausted from the week's work. In addition to life at home with the family, organizing a vote for up to 32,000 eligible employees in two days' time takes a lot of manpower, and as a shop steward, he's been actively involved with contract negotiations since last summer.

And he has to work this weekend. Having conversations with workers, fielding their concerns and needs in the workplace, is emotionally draining but highly rewarding, Hopper said.

Henry, the attractions employee, told Orlando Weekly he's got the day off on Saturday, and was glad of it. So does Mel Paradiso, an attractions employee at Disney's Magic Kingdom and mother of a four-month-old son, who recently returned to work from maternity leave.

But she begins her new role working a third-shift custodial job at Animal Kingdom on Sunday — an overnight position she told Orlando Weekly was necessary, so she could stay with her kid during the day, while her husband (who also works) stays with him at night. Their rent has gone up, she said, and they can't afford the hundreds of dollars it would cost them to pay for childcare, since Disney's employee childcare program is only open during limited hours of the day. New childcare data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows childcare prices are untenable for many working families, even as childcare workers themselves often earn less than a living wage.

With Disney's lackluster contract proposal shot down by union members, the next step, per the unions, is to call on Disney to come back to the bargaining table. "And when they get there," said Hollis, the STCU president, "we expect to see a real strong offer economically that addresses the current record inflation, skyrocketing rent and the cost-of-living increases that workers are facing today."

This vote came just days after food service workers at the Orange County Convention Center won a new contract delivering an $18 minimum wage this year, up from $13, and a $3 pay raise for every worker covered by the contract. It also comes the same day multiple media outlets confirmed that Florida lawmakers will hold a special legislative session Monday to discuss a state takeover of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, among other issues.

Update 2/4/23 at 11 a.m: Added a statement from the Walt Disney Co. The company had previously given OW the wrong number in an auto-reply to our emailed request for comment, much to the chagrin of the person who answered at 9 p.m. on a Friday.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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