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The Impending Wage Battle Between Walt Disney World and Its Workers

Mar 10, 2014 6:00 am

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With record attendance and rising prices on tickets, it will be hard for Disney to argue that it can’t share the wealth with the rank and file.

— Jason Clampet

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Joe Burbank  / Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Fireworks and confetti fly over Cinderella Castle during the grand opening ceremony for the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, Thursday, December 6, 2012, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel/MCT


The last time Walt Disney World and its largest group of unions negotiated a new contract, the resort was slogging through a year in which attendance sank and Disney’s broader parks-and-resorts division posted its lowest operating profit in half a decade.

Nearly four years later, the two sides are back at the bargaining table. Disney World is drawing record attendance, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts recently announced the highest annual operating profit in its history.

The more than 36,000 workers represented by the Service Trades Council — everyone from bus drivers to costumed-character performers — have noticed.

“We know the money is there,” said Joe Condo, a representative for the Transportation Communications International Union, whose Local 1908 represents monorail pilots and hotel front-desk employees, among other Disney World workers. It is one of the six unions that comprise the trades council.

“What everybody fails to understand is that it’s the people who are working that are the creators of all that money,” Condo said.

Disney World spokeswoman Kim Prunty said the resort already offers industry-leading compensation to its workers and that Disney “will continue to build on this.”

“Since our last negotiation, we have created nearly 6,000 new full-time jobs and provided wage increases that were well above the industry average, even in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in history,” Prunty added.

Operating profit at Walt Disney Co.’s theme-park division — in which Disney World is by far the biggest individual business — dropped to just over $1.3 billion in the company’s 2010 fiscal year, the lowest point during the economic downturn, according to regulatory filings. It has climbed every year since, soaring 68 percent to just over $2.2 billion during the company’s 2013 fiscal year, which ended last fall.

Disney’s last contract with the Service Trades Council, which took effect in October 2010, included three annual raises of between 3 percent and 4 percent for workers that hadn’t already reached the top of their pay scales, as well as $650 one-time bonuses for non-tipped, full-time employees.

This year’s negotiations could be more combustible than previous talks. That’s because the largest of the trades-council unions — Unite Here Local 737, which represents housekeepers and food-and-beverage workers — is under new, more aggressive leadership.

Leaders of that local union have aligned themselves closely with the management of Unite Here Local 362, which represents ride operators, custodians and ticket-sellers and has long been one of Disney World’s most combative locals.

Together, the two Unite Here unions represent about 21,000 Disney employees, making them a powerful force in a contract negotiation that ultimately must be ratified by a vote of all workers.

Disney management and union representatives met for opening talks last week. Union leaders presented an offer calling for raises of 75 cents an hour each year for the next three years for all non-tipped workers. Tipped employees would get raises of 25 cents an hour.

Eric Clinton, the president of Unite Here Local 362, said the proposal ultimately would lift all of the council’s workers to at least $10.10 an hour — the same amount President Barack Obama has proposed as a new federal minimum wage.

About 13,000 workers represented by the two Unite Here locals make less than $10.10 an hour, union leaders say.

“It’s housekeepers, which is not easy work. It’s third-shift custodians. It’s ride operators running multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment with people’s lives at stake,” Clinton said.

Prunty, the Disney World spokeswoman, said the median wage for full-time workers represented by the Trades Council is about $12 an hour, when factoring in extra pay opportunities such as overtime and premiums for certain positions.

Prunty also said Disney pays 75 percent of the cost of health-insurance premiums for its workers, offers a “robust” selection of plans and provides other benefits such as two on-site childcare centers and an on-site health clinic and pharmacy.

In addition, the unions have asked Disney to commit to always paying at least 50 cents more than the minimum wage. That would mean minimum starting pay of $8.43 an hour under Florida’s current minimum wage, or about $17,500 a year for someone who works 40 hours a week.

Some union activists contrast that with the pay of Disney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger, whose compensation package was valued at $34.3 million for the company’s 2013 fiscal year, according to regulatory filings.

“The fact is that they [Disney] are doing so well,” said Jeremy Cruz-Haicken, the president of Unite Here Local 737. “We’re really hopeful that will translate into more money flowing through the local economy through higher wages.”

Disney declined to say how much the union proposal would cost the company. The company has not yet made a wage offer of its own.

The current contract was set to expire March 29 but has been extended until July 17 while negotiations continue.

While not all of Disney World’s other unions are as confrontational as the Unite Here locals, Service Trades Council President Ed Chambers said he is confident they will speak with one voice in negotiations.

“At the end of the day, we all want better wages, better benefits and better working conditions,” said Chambers, who is also the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1625, which represents merchandise workers and florists, among others.

jrgarcia@tribune.com or 407-420-5414 ___

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