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Working In These Times

Monday, May 16, 2016, 5:50 pm

“We’re Not Paid Enough”: Cafeteria Workers at Walt Disney World Say They Want a Union

BY Michael Arria

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Workers rally for a union in Orland. (UNITE HERE)  

The cafeteria workers at “The Most Magical Place on Earth” are trying to organize a union. About three-quarters of the cafeteria workers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, have signed cards indicating that they want the union UNITE HERE to represent them.

Disney World, the largest single-site employer in the United States, has over 74,000 workers, the majority of them unionized. This makes Disney one of the biggest unionized labor presences in the entire state of Florida. UNITE HERE already represents 23,000 of the park’s employees, but Disney outsources its cafeteria work to the French company Sodexo, which means that the 350 people who make up the cafeteria staff lack the same union representation as the other park workers.

Sodexo is no stranger to labor disputes. They have been the target of at least nine university boycotts in recent years, with students protesting their low-pay and substandard working conditions. In 2009, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began a nationwide campaign against Sodexo to improve its employees’ wages and working conditions. Sodexo sued the SEIU in 2011, claiming that the union used illegal tactics in their effort. The SEIU ended their campaign and the charges were dropped, but concerns about Sodexo’s labor practices continue to follow the company. At Disney, the questionable conditions are highlighted by the fact that most of the surrounding park employees are unionized.

“Most workers at the park are unionized and they’re being served [food] by an outsourced company that isn’t,” Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362 and a former park employee, tells In These Times. “We don’t think it’s fair for an entire group of people to be without a voice at work.”

The Sodexo workers’ lack of representation regularly allows them to be taken advantage of, as workers point to erratic scheduling, short-notice relocation, and retaliatory action if they complain about their situation.

Sodexo could recognize the union through a “card check” process, which unions claim is a fairer method for workers than a traditional National Labor Relations Board election because of the opportunity for employer interference, but has yet to do so. Clinton made it clear to In These Times that the union wasn’t thinking about an NLRB election at the moment. Card check is regularly criticized by pro-business groups for depriving workers of their right to a secret ballot. Some believe that such a process allows the union to pressure employees into backing unionization against its own will. But UNITE HERE believes that an election would expose workers to pressure from Sodexo.

“I talk to people who deal with last-minute schedule changes, switched shifts. I know workers who are living in their cars,” Sammy Torres, a chef at Sodexo, tells In These Times. “We’re trying to get better benefits and show we’re not paid enough. “I’m 46. There’s no retirement plans. I’ve been fighting this for a while now. We’re going to keep fighting.”           

Torres says the Sodexo staff has the support of Disney cast members, but believes the holdup actually stems from the park, not Sodexo.

“I think Disney doesn’t want it,” says Torres.

UNITE HERE has had success winning unions for other Sodexo workers throughout the country. Sodexo claims hundreds of collective bargaining agreements, but Disney insists they can’t force an outside company to change its policies.

William Lawson, a field representative at the Central Florida AFL-CIO, isn’t buying that. In a blog post titled “Of Mice and Management” Lawson writes:

Disney is already a hotbed for organized labor but you can’t get your one gold star and then stop there. There is absolutely no earthly reason why the largest employer in Central Florida, one of the most profitable entities on the face of this planet, and a household name in supposed moral virtuousness should have workers living in cars or on the street. It’s unconscionable and ”We can’t tell another company what to do” is not a valid excuse.

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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