Disney caught between employees and customers over response to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill

As some workers across the United States threaten to walk off Tuesday, The Walt Disney Co. finds itself balancing the expectations of a diverse workforce with the demands of an increasingly polarized marketplace and politicized.

On the one hand, LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees are calling for a walkout to protest CEO Bob Chapek’s slow response to publicly criticizing Florida legislation that opponents have dubbed the ‘Don’ Bill. t Say Gay”. Legislation pending the governor’s signature prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

On the other are politicians like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who accuse the entertainment conglomerate of leaning into cancel culture after a Disney decision to temporarily suspend political contributions in the state. Disney’s conservative critics say the company should be making a profit, not pushing a program.

It was unclear how many employees would leave or what might happen to those who did. Union leaders for the tens of thousands of unionized workers at Disney theme parks in Florida and California said they saw no momentum among their members for a walkout and advised them not to because it would go to the against contractual obligations. Organizers said they expected some participation from production, marketing, IT and other non-union jobs.

Protesters gather to speak on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Florida. Florida House Republicans have introduced a bill, dubbed by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, to ban discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

Evan Power, the Leon County Republican Party chairman, said he thinks a strident minority of Disney employees are pushing the issue and that DeSantis has more to gain by siding with parents who want more control. on education and “sex conversations” in the early years. at school. DeSantis is considered a likely Republican candidate for president in 2024.

“I think it’s paying dividends for parents across the state of Florida, regardless of political divides,” Power said.

Unions say contracts prohibit work stoppages and disruptions

Romualdas Dulskis, a Teamsters official in Orlando whose local represents costumed characters that portray Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Stitch at Walt Disney World, as well as bus drivers and other Disney employees, said his union does not did not support the walkout.

“That’s just not the way we’re going to do it,” he said.

Union leaders said the contracts prohibit work stoppages or disruptions.

“I don’t want to belittle anyone’s efforts, if anyone thinks what they’re doing is the right way to make an impact,” said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents caretakers, housekeepers and other workers at Disney World theme parks. “We are not part of it. It would violate our contract if members of our union participated, although we are concerned about the matter, of course.”

The company has already taken a stand on social issues

One of the walkout organizers, a New York-based employee, said he expected workers with “privilege” to be able to demonstrate in defense of those who cannot. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted online and because organizers did not want a single organizer in the spotlight.

Workers participating in the walkout plan to meet at locations in Orlando, New York, Anaheim and Burbank, Calif., where the company is headquartered.

“Gay employees have been pushing for years to make this business better – it shouldn’t have taken all of this to get people’s attention up the food chain. Our voices mattered before all of this,” organizers tweeted. Tuesday.

A Disney spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment. Disney employed 190,000 people last October, about three-quarters of whom worked in its theme park division.

Disney, whose movies and properties have shaped generations of children around the world, has repeatedly spoken out in recent years about controversial social and political situations.

It was one of several U.S. companies that in January 2021 said they would suspend political donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory. He also spoke out early against a 2016 anti-gay bill in Georgia, threatening to pull his business from the state, which has become a favorite with film and TV studios. The bill was vetoed by the governor of Georgia at the time.

And the company has not been immune to changing societal expectations. He said he would revamp the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain rides at his theme parks to remove racist and sexist elements and put short disclaimers in front of some of his classic movies on his streaming service, Disney+, alerting viewers to “outdated cultural representations”.

Chapek apologized earlier this month for not being a ‘stronger ally’

Bob Chapek, President of Parks, Experiences, and Products for The Walt Disney Company, speaks during the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Grand Opening Ceremony at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on August 28, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

This time, Chapek, who became CEO in 2020, got shot for speaking out on the gender identity bill only after it passed the Florida Legislature.

Republican lawmakers pushing the Florida legislation had argued that parents, not teachers, should be the ones talking to their children about gender issues during their early formative years.

The legislation has caught the attention of Biden, who called it “hateful,” as well as other Democrats who argue it demonizes LGBTQ people. It was sent to DeSantis, who should sign it.

Chapek apologized earlier this month for not speaking out more forcefully and publicly against the bill, saying Disney officials worked behind the scenes to stop it. Chapek also announced a pause in all political donations in Florida and increased support for advocacy groups fighting similar legislation in other states. Chapek reiterated those points during a company-wide discussion with employees on Monday.

Disney has long been influential in Florida politics, tending to be conservative and supportive of Republicans who have controlled Tallahassee, the state capital, for two decades, but also being more outspoken on social issues, Patricia Campos-Medina said. , co-director. from the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

“That’s why people felt surprised that they wanted to stay silent on this issue,” she said.

The organizers of the walkout argue that withholding political contributions is not enough.

On a website calling for the walkout, the group says that until the legislation is repealed, Disney executives must halt investments in Florida, including relocating 2,000 mostly professional jobs from its California headquarters to Orlando. They also say Disney needs to develop an LGBTQ brand similar to Onyx Collective, an initiative to develop content by and for people of color.

Power, the GOP official in Tallahassee, said he was confident Disney and the Florida Republicans would overcome that flashpoint and eventually mend their relationship.

“It’s good that we’re pushing back, because the purpose of a publicly traded company isn’t to advance an agenda,” Power said. “The people at Disney know they have to work with the legislature and the governor, and they will come back.”