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Disney Says Promised Bonus Depends On Workers Signing Wage Contract

The Service Trades Council Union, a six-union coalition representing 38,000 Disney World workers, says what The Walt Disney Co. is doing is illegal.
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The Service Trades Council Union, a six-union coalition representing 38,000 Disney World workers, says what The Walt Disney Co. is doing is illegal.

Updated on Feb. 23 at 10:22 a.m. ET

When Congress passed a sweeping tax overhaul last December, it lowered the corporate tax rate, and dozens of companies promised to share the good fortune with employees by offering raises or bonuses.

The Walt Disney Co. was among them, having logged a one-time windfall of $1.6 billion during its latest quarter, largely because of tax cuts. It announced to its workers in January that nonmanagement employees — about 125,000 workers in all — would receive a $1,000 bonus.

But the company has since added a caveat for some employees: that the unions in the midst of contract negotiations must approve and ratify the company's latest contract offer before the represented workers can see their bonus.

"I've seen the company do things that I think [are] wrong in the past. I've never seen them do something this outrageous," says Eric Clinton, a veteran Disney World cast member in Orlando and president of the Unite Here Local 362.

The Service Trades Council Union, a six-union coalition representing 38,000 Disney World workers, says what the company is doing is also illegal. On Monday, the group filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

"Wages and bonuses are part of our negotiation process," Andrea Finger, a Disney spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We will continue to meet with the union to move toward a ratified agreement."

Disney's bonus announcement came just as the unions were restarting contract negotiations. In December, 93 percent of union members rejected the theme park's offer of a $200 signing bonus and a $1-an-hour raise over two years.

Ed Chambers, that union coalition's president, said by tying the bonus to contract negotiations only for those union members, Disney is engaging in a kind of extortion.

"We are taking a position at the council [that] they're two separate things: Give us the $1,000 bonus like everybody else; continue to bargain the contract," he says.

Madeline Johnson, a ride operator at Disney's Animal Kingdom, says from the moment the bonus was announced, she worried the company would try to use it as leverage over workers. Johnson voted against Disney's most recent offer and says the company is retaliating against workers who voted "no."

"I just feel like I'm trying to be bribed and I feel discriminated against, because I don't think it's right that we have to go through this and be blackmailed into accepting something," she says.

Johnson says she wants to hold out for a bigger raise, which she says is worth far more to her than a one-time bonus.

Not everyone agrees it's worth holding out.

Maria Cornell, who works in a Disney store, says she had plans for her bonus. "As a matter of fact, I was going to buy my new glasses," she says, but now those plans are on hold, because both the bonus and the contract remain in limbo.

Cornell says she thinks workers have little leverage to negotiate any more than what Disney's offering, and she wants to see a contract ratified.

"I just want to get it over with," she says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Business Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, DC. Since joining NPR in 2008, she's covered a range of business and economic news, with a special focus on the workplace — anything that affects how and why we work. In recent years she has covered the rise of the contract workforce, the #MeToo movement, the Great Recession, and the subprime housing crisis. In 2011, she covered the earthquake and tsunami in her parents' native Japan. Her coverage of the impact of opioids on workers and their families won a 2019 Gracie Award and received First Place and Best In Show in the radio category from the National Headliner Awards. She also loves featuring offbeat topics, and has eaten insects in service of journalism.
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