Mayor backs Disney staffers in union talks

Mayor Jose Alvarez

By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Kissimmee’s mayor voiced public support last week for Disney employees, as wage negotiations between the Central Florida attraction and more than 35,000 of its workers wages on.

In a letter to be published Saturday in the Osceola News-Gazette, Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez

Mayor Jose Alvarez

wrote he is confident Disney will “continue to do the right thing” by offering a living wage for its employees.

Earlier this month, the corporation offered a proposal to implement a $15 minimum wage by 2021.

“I understand that these raises will cost Disney quite a lot of money,” Alvarez wrote in his letter. “For that reason, I applaud Disney’s leadership for responding to the unions’ repeated calls for higher pay.”

But some union leaders rejected the proposal, citing that it would cut other benefits such as overtime and holiday pay.

The negotiations are expected to continue later this summer as the unions and Disney look at compensation, including a $1,000 bonus Walt Disney Company offered to employees as a result of GOP tax cuts.

In addition to the gradual $15 minimum wage, the contract detailed concessions that included cuts to holiday pay and overtime, changes in how employees transfer to new positions and grievance procedures.

The rights of shop stewards – people elected by union workers to represent them in front of management – would be reduced. The proposal also eliminates a 20-minute meeting new hires get paid to attend with union representatives.

The new proposal follows one Disney put forth in December that would have increased employee wages by 50 cents this year and then again next year. That proposal was rejected by the union coalition as the group held out for higher pay.

The union coalition together represent over 35,000 skilled and unskilled Walt Disney World Resort employees.

In his public letter, Alvarez discussed “the working poor” – hard working men and women employed by Disney and other major Central Florida attractions who barely make enough money to pay rent.

Many of those employees – and other non-union members who benefit from higher negotiated salaries – are Osceola County residents, as Alvarez points out in his letter.

“I told them (the employees) that I thought it was wrong that full-time workers had to live in Kissimmee’s pay-by-the-week motels, sleep on benches, or crowd many families into small apartments,” he wrote.

Workers in the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford Metropolitan Statistical Area had an average hourly wage about 13 percent below the nationwide average of $23.86, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jobs such as serving and food processing – typically low-wage earning positions – make up 12.8 percent of employment in the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford region, according to Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data.

Alvarez expressed optimism over upcoming negotiations that are expected to settle the higher wage issue for Disney World employees.

Union leaders are also optimistic, albeit slightly skeptical, after Disney’s most recent offer earlier this month.

“After eight months of rallies, marches, and cast members sticking together, Disney has finally come back with real improvements in wage proposals for 38,000 unionized cast members,” leaders from UNITE HERE Locals 362 and 737 wrote in a statement May 2. “But we need to consider it with caution…If we settle, we want it to be fair.”