Walt Disney World and a coalition of six unions representing its workers will resume negotiations over a new contract Friday, with a proposal to raise theme park employees’ minimum wage to $15 per hour and the promise of $1,000 bonuses on the table.
The $15 hourly wage had been a key sticking point when wage negotiations between Disney and the more than 36,000 employees represented by the unions began in August. After 93 percent of the union members voting rejected Disney’s initial offer of a 6 to 10 percent raise over two years in December, Disney came back with an offer which does offer a $15 starting wage — but at too high a cost to other benefits, according to one major union leader.
In exchange for Disney incrementally raising its current minimum wage of $10 per hour to $15 by 2021, employees would no longer receive overtime pay for working a sixth day in a week or double-time pay for a seventh workday. Overtime would also kick in only after working 40 hours in a week, not more than eight hours a day.
Additional concessions Disney is seeking are a one-year waiting period for theme park workers to transfer to a new location, up from six months, as well as eliminating a 20-minute paid meeting for new hires to meet with union representatives.
The official statement from two of the unions, UNITE HERE Locals 362 and 737, called the offer “an important step in our effort to achieve a living wage” but one that would be considered “with caution.”
Ed Chambers, president of UFCW Local 1625 and chair of the union coalition, seemed ready to reject the proposal when it was unveiled in May.
“Almost every one of those proposals was taking back benefits or conditions on employment we had bargained for over last 45 years,” he said. “They’re basically wiping out 45 years of progress.”
Since then, however, as unions and Disney have gained some victories over the other side. Drivers of Walt Disney World’s new Lyft-powered “Minnie Van” service won the right to unionize in a decision from the National Labor Relations Board.
The same board dealt a blow to unions’ leverage weeks later by ruling Disney can legally withhold a $1,000 bonus for cast members announced after Congress passed its tax cut law. David Cohen, regional director in the NLRB’s Tampa office, said the company is allowed to keep those bonuses from cast members as negotiations continue.
“There is no evidence that the employer is refusing to meet and bargain further about bonuses and wage rates,” Cohen wrote in his decision. “Accordingly, there is insufficient evidence to establish that the employer has unlawfully failed to bargain in good faith.”
Disney has offered one-time bonuses to cast members in previous contract talks in lieu of larger, long-term pay increases. For example, in 2011 negotiations with the Disney World unions, the company offered a $750 bonus to employees making less than $8.50 per hour, which was enough to get four of the six unions in the coalition to support allowing all members on vote on ratification.
In the current talks, unions may have the advantage in the public relations battle. There have been reports over the past year on the living conditions for both Disney World and Disneyland employees — with workers living in former motels in Florida and at least one California cast member saying she sleeps in her car because of low pay and a high cost of living — while Disney’s theme park division’s profits have been on the rise, hitting $1.35 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017.
Both the union coalition and Disney failed to respond to requests for comment on where they stand as talks resume.
Union members had mentioned striking last year if Disney didn’t meet their demand for a $15 minimum wage, but University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith doesn’t think workers, or their unions, have the kind of “war chest” needed to sustain a strike for long.
“I assume most of them are lower-paid employees and like many people, are living paycheck to paycheck. That’s a big hardship,” Snaith said.
Disney is the biggest employer in the Orlando area, but Snaith said even a short-lived strike wouldn’t “show up on the radar screen” in terms of affecting the region’s larger economy. He expected Disney’s hotels and theme parks operations would continue relatively unimpeded, meaning workers couldn’t have as great of an impact on the tourism industry like an economic downturn.
“If you have a company-specific labor dispute, those impacts are fairly localized and not macro or broad-based,” he said.