"Happiest Place on Earth" Seeks a Pay Raise

08/07/2017 12:38 am ET

The locals representing approximately 36,000 unionized workers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, are set to begin negotiations on August 28, with the express purpose of raising the hourly wage. It’s all part of an 5.5 year agreement signed in 2014, which allows the unions to re-open the wage portion of the contract in 2017.

According to what’s been reported, the unions (including big names like UNITE HERE, Teamsters, SEIU, UFCW, Bakery and Confectionary workers, and covering everything from custodial work, to drivers, to servers, to ride operators) will be looking to achieve, by degrees, parity with the $15/hour paid by Southern California’s Disneyland. The stated goal is to reach that $15/hour rate by 2022. Per the 2014 contract, the majority of Orlando workers currently make $10.00/hour.

While the practice of “openers” (re-opening key provisions of a union contract) has been around forever, it came roaring upon the scene during the 1970s, when the scourge of runaway inflation began savagely eating away at base wages. The “opener” is an interesting and—when allowed to function as designed—beneficial device.

There are all types of openers, the most common of which are ones that focus directly on wages or (most recently) health care benefits. Typically, openers are exceedingly limited and very specific. Besides both parties (union and management) being required to agree on re-opening the contract, only certain predetermined provisions may be discussed.

Take a standard 4-year contract for example. If the union feels that putting its signature on a 4-year document exposes them to being victimized by inflation or other unforeseeable changes in the economic landscape, it can request that the wage portion of the contract be re-opened after, say, the second year.

The company, dreading having to sit down at the bargaining table and once again bicker with union wild men over money, is free to deny the request, arguing that no one can accurately predict the future, that both sides would be equally vulnerable to unforeseeable changes (not true, actually), and that, after all, a deal is a deal.

Occasionally, the company will try to take advantage of the opportunity. They will leverage the union’s intense desire for openers to obtain a longer contract, insisting that if the union is serious about wanting to re-open the wage portion of the contract, they must agree, say, to a 6-year term of the agreement instead of only four. Surprisingly, that tactic works more often than not.

Also, even with a good-faith re-opener provision in place, nothing is guaranteed. Because the company is not obligated to add so much as one penny to the existing wage package, the union could wind up with the same monetary package—but instead of being stuck with it for four years, they’re stuck with it for six years. The only thing that most openers legally require of the parties is to sit down and discuss the issue under the rules of collective bargaining. No promises.

What makes the Disney World opener somewhat different is that it is stipulated that if wage negotiations (which begin on August 28) don’t result in an agreement by October 24, the entirety of the contract—and not only the wage portion—is automatically thrown open to renegotiation. That’s an excellent incentive for the company not to lowball them. The union negotiators were wise to include it.

Disneyland and Walt Disney World are undeniably unique in certain ways. Because they are vaguely seen as being part of the Entertainment Industry, that perception benefits them greatly. Working at some hamburger joint, while similar in job duties, is nowhere near as “prestigious” as working at Disneyland’s Hungry Bear restaurant. Disney employees don’t wear uniforms. What they wear are referred to as “costumes.” It’s special.

One is reminded of the old joke. A guy who works at the circus complains to a friend that his job is becoming dismal. His duties include following the elephants with a shovel and wheelbarrow and picking up their droppings. The friend suggests that if the job has become so unpleasant he should just quit. The guy replies incredulously, “What? And leave show business??”

David Macaray is a playwright and author whose latest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows (everything you wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask).

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