Toward a more perfect union

Share on Nextdoor

By and large, Disney service workers will tell you, the "magic" of the Kingdom is reserved for the guests. The workers, meanwhile, take it on the chin -- then are expected to smile and ask for more. Many work long hours in the hot sun and still have trouble amassing a living wage.

Of course, Disney's not really at fault. For one thing, service-industry jobs don't pay a whole lot to begin with. In fact, Disney is considered a leader in the tourism industry, paying as well as if not better than its competitors.

Still, when company reports boast profits in the $2 billion range and even 20-year veterans top out at $10.89 an hour, employees tend to become disgruntled. To date, however, they've been able to do very little about it.

The reason: For the most part, Disney's service unions, which operate under the umbrella Service Trades Council (STC) union, are weak and ineffective. During the last contract negotiation in 1998, for example, STC members twice voted down Disney's contract offer -- in which a slight raise in hourly pay was offset by increased health-insurance premiums -- before Disney threatened to eliminate any pay raises altogether. In the end, Disney prevailed.

In some places, such treatment would have led to an immediate strike. After all, in the tight job market that is Central Florida, the union should have been able to strong-arm Disney into giving its members damn near anything.

Instead, it left some workers wondering whether they would be better off without a union at all. (An effort to organize a sick-out in protest failed, and 11 people were fired.)

The problem, from the union's perspective, is simple. Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning no one can be forced to join a labor union. As a result, more than half of Disney 55,000 workers -- 63 percent -- don't, though they receive the same benefits as the union members, without having to pay the $6.80 a week dues. And without solidarity, a union is meaningless.

On the flip side sits Harvey Totzke, the secretary-treasurer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 737 and president of the Service Trades Council. Since 1982, Totzke undeniably has been the most important union figure in Mouse land, commanding a six-figure salary that far exceeds his fellow union leaders.

In recent years, however, he's also become the focal point of very pointed and sometimes vicious criticism. His opponents say he's become complacent and self-serving; they say he's taking too much money and producing too few results.

And for the first time in 18 years, he now has a challenge to his leadership. On June 30, when ballots are counted to fill the 11 union positions -- including Totzke's -- that are being contested, a potentially dramatic shift could result.

Leading the charge is Murray Cohen, a room-service server in the Wilderness Lodge who in 1998 transferred into HERE from another STC union. "[HERE was] less than active," he says. "In a year and a half, I watched them do things that sicken me."

So he and another dissatisfied HERE member, Joe Suarez, began circulating literature critical of Totzke's administration and advocating change, effectively galvanizing the dissension. It came to a head in late January, when the union voted to amend its bylaws, changing candidate qualifications and basically preventing Cohen and Suarez from running for the union's executive board.

Cohen and Suarez complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, which found the amendment to be unreasonable and ordered new elections. Moreover, the department is supervising the rerun elections, from the mail-out of ballots to the vote counting itself.

The new elections brought dissenters out of the woodwork: Shelley Patton, a server in Cinderella's Castle, is now running for Totzke's position as secretary-treasurer, a position that went uncontested in the March election. With Patton and Cohen at the head, an entire slate of challengers emerged, threatening to upset a consistent power base less than a year before the union enters into its next contract negotiation with Disney.

The upstarts have a long list of complaints, ranging from misuse of funds and excessive salaries to nepotism. But at the heart is the union's perceived weakness at the bargaining table.

"Harvey became very complacent," Patton says. "There's no real pressure to get anything done." In the last few bargaining sessions, she says, Totzke and union negotiators have given away things like the free health insurance, walk times (in which employees are paid for their sometimes 20-minute walk from the parking lot to the job) and an increased percentage of banquet gratuities.

"They want a completely adversarial approach," says Totzke. But if you are completely adversarial, he adds, the company won't work with you.

He views the complaints as the bickerings of disgruntled workers who see problems with their personal situations as grounds for upsetting the whole system. Patton, for instance, is upset that Disney eliminated bussers from her restaurant, Totzke says; Suarez and Cohen's beef is that the union stopped pursuing their individual grievances.

But there are other complaints, such as Totzke's $13,500 raise last year. "Harvey received a wage increase voted on by [union] members," says Margie Engles, Local 737's vice president. "Murray Cohen was at that meeting and didn't oppose the wage increase." She and Totzke answer criticism that Totzke wasted union money on golf outings by saying those were charity events; just because a fund-raiser is a golf tourney, Totzke says, is no reason for the union not to donate.

As for nepotism, Totzke says it's not unusual for unions to have family members on the payroll. Totzke's wife and mother both work for Local 737; up until last year, his mother was its president. New president Harry Edminston's wife works with a union counseling service and does secretarial work.

The divisiveness within the union that Cohen traces to Totzke's administration didn't exist until Cohen showed up, Totzke says. Either way, the result is a nasty campaign, an example of which is an attack flier that depicts three mug shots of Totzke (arrested twice for battery and once for violating probation) and says, "We don't need his kind of 'experience' in our Union!" Totzke declined comment about the arrests, saying he didn't want personal information dispersed around Central Florida. But he says he would be more than happy to discuss it with union members.

The infighting could be moot regardless of the outcome should the union's clout stay the same. Both sides stress the need to build membership -- Local 737 mailed out 4,388 ballots for the March 8 election -- but there's uncertainty about how to do so. "We've done everything we can," says Harry Edminston, Local 737's president and a Totzke supporter. "I never understood why people don't get involved -- they just don't."

Cohen says he knows why: Union members feel disenfranchised by the current administration. During his campaign, he says, many have asked him how to get out of the union. Some, he adds, don't even know which union they're in or who their representatives are.

"The key to this whole thing," he says, "[is that] between now and April [2001, when the union renegotiates its contract], we need to get more enrollment." Without a majority, there will never be any collective bargaining, and certainly never enough clout to strike. Should members see a more active, open leadership, he says, they will get more involved and make the union more viable. And if they're successful, Cohen says, he wants to organize the entire tourist corridor, perhaps making this election the catalyst for a permanent change for service industry workers.

Or, says Totzke, it could shut down the now-open lines of communication with Disney for good.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.