Disney World workers approve new contract delivering an $18 minimum wage in 2023

Disney World workers approve new contract delivering wage raise and paid family leave

click to enlarge Disney World workers in Orlando celebrate a new contract with their fellow union members on March 29, 2023. - McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Disney World workers in Orlando celebrate a new contract with their fellow union members on March 29, 2023.

After months of fighting for a fair contract, thousands of union Disney World employees in Orlando approved a new union contract with Walt Disney World on Wednesday that delivers wage increases for all of the theme park’s union workers and paid child bonding leave.

Out of 12,650 workers across Disney World who participated in the single-day vote (not an easy feat to arrange), 97% voted in favor of the contract.

A group of around 200 Disney World workers — or "cast members," as they're referred to by the company — at the Wyndham Orlando Resort and Conference Center in Kissimmee Wednesday night celebrated the vote.

"When we fight, we win!" the group chanted, to applause and cheers from a room emanating with high energy after a high-stakes fight.

The new contract was negotiated by the Service Trades Council Union, a coalition of six labor unions that altogether represent about 42,000 Walt Disney World employees across the parks, ranging from workers in attractions to housekeeping, transit workers, food service workers, character performers and more.

The agreement raises Disney World’s minimum wage to $18 per hour, up from $15, by the end of the year.

Non-tipped workers in job classifications that currently earn Disney World’s minimum $15 hourly rate — such as union dishwashers, as well as some of Disney’s costuming specialists, custodial workers and laundry workers — will see a raise to $17 per hour minimum, immediately upon ratification of the contract.

They’ll also receive retroactive pay equal to $1 per hour extra (a $16 hourly rate) dating back to Oct. 1, 2022, when the unions' last contract expired.

Across the board, Disney World cast members this year will see a $3 per hour raise minimum in 2023, with some job classifications seeing more. Over the life of the contract, effective through October 2026, workers will see a wage increase of between $5.50 to $8.40, with that range varying by position.

That means, by the end of the contract, Disney World will have a minimum wage that's more than double what it was a decade ago, when the minimum hourly rate for cast members was less than $10.

"It's a historic amount of money," Nicolle Mischer, a cook at EPCOT Festival Kitchens and Unite Here Local 737 union member, told Orlando Weekly of the new raise. "It's been a long hard fight, but it's so rewarding to know at the end, that we continued the fight and we continued to push the company to do the right thing as far as, you know, making sure their cast members are taken care of," she said.

Personally, as a mother who will see her pay rise $4.10 upon the contract's ratification, Mischer's looking forward to not having to work as much overtime. She has sometimes worked upward of 60 hours per week just to pay the bills.

She's looking forward to having more time to spend with her musically inclined 15-year-old, who's in marching band, symphonic band and jazz band — and to have the time to perhaps volunteer to go on their trips as they travel to play.

The raise offered in the new contract, Mischer said, will give her a chance to breathe, "not having that heavy weight of working all those extra hours."

Another new addition to the contract — not offered in prior contracts — is eight weeks of paid child bonding leave (family leave) for full-time workers, employed for at least one year, who either give birth to a child, become a parent, or adopt or foster a new child under the age of 18.

This was something Sean Hopper, an employee at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in Disney's Hollywood Studios and a Unite Here Local 362 shop steward, previously told Orlando Weekly was especially important to him.

As a 36-year-old father of three young kids (all with Star Wars-themed names), he said he understands the importance of giving new parents and guardians that time. He wants his fellow cast members to have the opportunity to take time off without worrying about whether they’ll still be able to pay the bills.

Tiara Moton, a cook of 15 years, said that as the mother of a 3-year-old, that paid child bonding time is an amazing achievement for the unions, joking that for her, the pandemic was her "child bonding time."

"We deserve this. We worked hard for it," she said.

click to enlarge Tiara Moton (middle) surrounded by Disney World workers in union shirts in Central Florida on March 29, 2023. - McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
McKenna Schueler/Orlando Weekly
Tiara Moton (middle) surrounded by Disney World workers in union shirts in Central Florida on March 29, 2023.

Jeff Vahle, President of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement, "Our cast members have always been at the heart of the Walt Disney World experience, and we are thrilled that, with the support of the union, they have overwhelmingly approved this new five-year agreement that significantly increases wages, alongside our leading benefits program that includes affordable medical coverage and more."

Room for growth

While the contract was overwhelmingly approved Wednesday, some still felt there was room for growth.

Christine Martell, an embroidery specialist at Disney and a shop steward for her union, IATSE Local 631, said she was disappointed Disney didn't address her union’s concern about a gender pay gap between the union’s costuming workforce (which is female-dominated) and the male-dominated technician workforce.

But there’s one bright spot on this matter, according to IATSE Local 631’s president Paul Cox.

According to Paul Cox, president of IATSE Local 631, cosmetologists (another job classification whose workers largely identify as female) will see their pay essentially match that of the predominantly male stage technicians employed by Disney, he said.

As a separate project, Cox told Orlando Weekly the entire STCU broadly plans within the next couple of years to study whether there exists a potential skills-based wage gap between job classifications across the theme park within his and other Disney unions.

When we organize, we win

This vote of approval on this new contract, considered a victory by union leaders, comes nearly two months after thousands of workers stood together and rejected a worse offer from Disney that would have offered just a $1 raise in the first year of the contract for many, albeit with a similar $5 increase over the life of the contract.

Although some union workers, such as culinary staff, would have seen a higher raise under that agreement, workers almost unanimously rejected it in solidarity with those who wouldn’t.

Out of 14,263 workers who voted on that last agreement, 13,650 — or 96% — shot it down.

A couple weeks after, Disney came back with a worse offer that would have offered a higher raise upfront — a $17 minimum hourly rate for those making $15 — but would have decreased the amount of retroactive pay workers would have received, earning backlash from union leaders.

The new agreement, approved by workers Wednesday, restores that back pay.

Union organizers and other union leaders in the parks have been organizing behind the scenes of the Most Magical Place on Earth to negotiate a new contract for union workers since August, ahead of their last contract’s expiration on Oct. 1.

"We went into break rooms, we had conversations that were uncomfortable sometimes. We had conversations that were uplifting and inspiring," said Diego Henry, a Disney cast member of 10 years and a shop steward for Unite Here Local 362.

A pay raise that helps workers keep up with Central Florida's rise in cost of living was the No. 1 concern across the board.

A 2022 report from one of the unions, Unite Here Local 737, found that many of Central Florida’s hospitality workers (including Disney World employees) have reported struggling to pay for housing, food and transportation — even as theme park visitation and park revenues in the previous year shot up.

Ivy Maestre, a Disney Parks greeter of 16 years who makes just about $15 per hour, said she's one of the many cast members who's struggled to make ends meet. A single mom, Maestre has skipped meals at times to ensure her child is able to eat three meals a day, and has struggled to pay the mortgage on the house she describes as her own personal castle.

She's also been a leader for her union, Unite Here Local 362, for just about a year now, and has thus has been in the trenches of the fight for a fair contract. It didn't come easy, she said.

The Walt Disney Co. is reportedly looking to lay off 4,000 people as a cost-cutting measure, according to a Business Insider report, and another 3,000 cuts are reportedly going to come from open positions, although the impact of that on the workforce in Orlando at this time is unclear.

Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362, previously told the Orlando Sentinel the cuts are unlikely to affect Disney World’s frontline workers, however — the Parks division is the company's third most profitable, reaping $28 billion in revenues last year alone.

Not even a political feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (performative or not) is likely to threaten the company’s bottom line, although other divisions within the company last year didn’t fare so well.

With their new deal, Disney's cast members in Orlando hope they'll be able to spur change across the tourism and hospitality sector, which makes up roughly one-fifth of the Central Florida region's workforce.

Universal Orlando (which is non-unionized) recently announced a $17 minimum wage for its own workforce this year, and some smaller companies have also moved to offer workers something closer to a living wage.

Food service workers at the Orange County Convention Center, represented by Unite Here Local 737, also won their own historic contract earlier this year, winning an $18 minimum wage this year, up from $13.

When the STCU won a $15 minimum wage at Disney during the last contract cycle, back in 2018, that prompted other employers (including Universal) to follow suit, eventually, with their own raises.

Mischer, the cook at EPCOT, said this agreement opens the door not just in Central Florida, but across the state, and potentially across the country,  with Disney widely considered an industry leader. "I believe that other companies will see and take the lead that Disney has, you know — the steps that Disney has taken to make sure their cast members have taken care of."

"When we come together, when we unionize and organize, this is what we can do," said Henry, speaking to his fellow workers. "We are changing the future of the Central Florida. The state of Florida right now. Tonight. Don't ever forget what you've done tonight."


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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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