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

Michael Arria May 16, 2016

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 is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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