Disney workers try to get more pay, better benefits

Photo from CNN
Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 11:00am

Cinderella is asking for a raise.

As are roughly 37,000 unionized employees at the happiest place on earth -- Walt Disney World. The workers are preparing to negotiate for higher wages, more affordable benefits and improvements to pension plans as their union contract expires at the end of March.

"I love my job, but I have been working here for 20 years, and making $13.45 after that long doesn't sound like much," said Sherry Shulz, 65, who trains new hires. She said more money would ease her concerns over paying for health care and gas for her 40-mile commute to work.

Workers at the Orlando, Fla. theme park are represented by a coalition of six different local unions called the Service Trades Council.

Disney employees' call for higher wages comes at a time when there is a push by hourly wage workers nationwide for better pay. But the park workers' demands for better benefits and more pension stands a little in contrast to retail and fast food workers, who have been fighting just to be able to qualify for benefits.

The unionized Disney workers also get opportunities for overtime, as well as paid holidays and vacation time.

"Disney is a great company to work for and they care about their people ... but it's very hard to get by on what many of them make, and we think they can do more financially," said Ed Chambers, president of the Service Trades Council.

The group represents local branches of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Teamsters, Transportation Communications International Union, Unite Here and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. It was formed in 1971, just as Disney World was preparing to open and hiring its first workers, Chambers said.

Negotiations for the new contract will begin in March.

Wages vary greatly based on jobs and how long employees have worked with the company. For example, a Disney character's wage starts at $8.20 per hour, and maxes out at $13.59. Base pay for an entertainment technician, on the other hand, starts at $14.75 an hour and is capped at $21.60.

That compares to Florida's minimum wage of $7.93.

Bernadette Davis, a Disney spokeswoman, said that its goal is to come to a reasonable agreement that meets the needs of its employees and the company.

Workers will be asking for more than higher wages. Don Curtis, a 45 year-old transportation coordinator who's worked at Disney for 20 years, wants improvements to his pension plan.

"I have three kids and I don't need to live like "lifestyles of the rich and famous" when I retire, but I want to have enough to fall back on and pay my bills."

Keeping the cost of benefits down will be another component of the negotiations, said Donna-Lynne Dalton, a former Disney performer and treasurer for the Service Trades Council.

Chambers said Disney had offered to extend the current contract for another year and raise wages by 3.5% back in August, but two of the local unions rejected the idea, hoping for larger raises.

Some of the union pressure comes from the fact that Disney has been raking in money and workers feel the company should pass along the gains. Helped by record traffic, the company reported a 16% increase in operating profit from its parks and resorts division in the most recent quarter.

Shulz, the long-time Disney worker, is optimistic that Disney will do right by its workers, and she wants to stay in her job for years to come.

"I would not want to work anywhere else, but we want some more money to pay for things in the outside world," she said.

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