Some Disney workers walk off the job over company's response to Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Even though only a small percentage of Walt Disney Co. workers participated in a walkout Tuesday, organizers felt they had won a moral victory with the company issuing a statement denouncing the anti-LGBTQ legislation that sparked employee outrage.

Organizers say they won a moral victory after company issued a statement denouncing the anti-LGBTQ law

A Disney employee holds a sign to protest the company's stance on LGBTQ issues in Glendale, Calif., Tuesday. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Even though only a small percentage of Walt Disney Co. workers participated in a national walkout Tuesday, organizers felt they had won a moral victory with the company issuing a statement denouncing Florida legislation known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which sparked employee outrage.

Throughout the day, pockets of employees staged demonstrations at various sites throughout the country, including near Orlando's Walt Disney World and Walt Disney Animation Studios in California. According to a Disney official, there had been no interruptions in any operations.

Disney employed 190,000 workers as of last October, with roughly three-quarters working in its theme parks division.

The debate forced Disney into a balancing act between the expectations of a diverse workforce and demands from an increasingly polarized, politicized marketplace.

On one side are LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees calling for a walkout in protest of CEO Bob Chapek's slow response in publicly criticizing the Florida legislation, which bars instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. It is currently waiting for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis's signature.

Bob Chapek, chairman of parks, experiences, and products for The Walt Disney Company, speaks during the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge dedication ceremony at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Aug. 28, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

On the other are politicians like DeSantis, who accuse the entertainment conglomerate of bending to cancel culture after a Disney decision to temporarily suspend political contributions in the state. According to Disney's conservative critics, the company should be in the business of making profits, not pushing an agenda.

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 do so because it would defy contractual obligations. 

Evan Power, the Republican Party chairman in Leon County, said he believes a strident minority of Disney employees are pushing the issue and DeSantis has more to gain by taking the side of parents who want more control over education and "sexual conversations" in early grades at school.

Disney cast member Nicholas Maldonado takes part in an employee walkout at Walt Disney World, Tuesday, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

In a Tuesday Facebook post, Disney wrote that the company opposes "any legislation that infringes on basic human rights" and stands "in solidarity" with LGBTQ employees "who make their voices heard today and every day."

A half-dozen Disney workers gathered Tuesday morning at an Orlando LGBTQ centre to write letters in support of queer students. "You're Amazing. You Matter and We Care" and "It Gets Better," they read, next to a drawing of a rainbow.

"We are creators, and we felt that we could be creative and productive and write letters of encouragement to LGBTQ youth," said Gabe, a Walt Disney World product development manager who didn't want his last name used for fear of having his privacy invaded.

Scores of Disney workers marched outside the company's Burbank, Calif., studios, including one carrying rainbow-coloured Mickey Mouse doll and chanting, "Say gay!"

"We had a great group out here just to show our support for our queer employees and their families," said Nora Rogers, a production supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

A demonstrator wearing a rainbow-colour face mask takes part in the protest in Glendale, Calif., Tuesday. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)

Unions say contracts prohibit work stoppages, disruptions

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

"That's just not the way we are going to go about this," he said.

Union leaders said contracts prohibit work stoppages or disruptions.

"I don't want to downplay anyone's efforts, if someone feels what they are doing is the right way to make an impact," said Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here! Local 362, which represents custodians, housekeepers and other Disney World theme park workers. "We aren't part of that. It would violate our contract if members of our union participated, though we are concerned about the issue, of course."

Company has previously taken stand on social issues

One of the organizers of the walkout, a New York-based employee, said they were expecting participation by workers with the "privilege" to be able to protest to stand up for those who can't. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of being targeted online and because organizers didn't want a single organizer taking the spotlight.

"Queer employees have been pushing for years to make this company better — it shouldn't have taken all this for us to get the attention of people up the food chain. Our voices mattered before all this," organizers tweeted Tuesday.

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

It was one of a slew of U.S. companies that in January 2021 said it would suspend political donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying U.S. President Joe Biden's electoral victory. It also spoke out early against a 2016 anti-gay bill in Georgia, threatening to pull its business from the state, which has become a favourite of movie and TV studios. The bill was vetoed by Georgia's then-governor.

And the company has not been immune to changing societal expectations. It has said it would revamp the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain rides at its theme parks to remove racist and sexist elements and put short warnings in front of some of its classic movies on its streaming service, Disney+, alerting viewers to "outdated cultural depictions."

Chapek apologized earlier this month for not being a 'stronger ally'

This time, Chapek, who became CEO in 2020, has drawn fire for speaking out about 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 attracted scrutiny from Biden, who called it "hateful," as well as other Democrats who argue it demonizes LGBTQ people. It has been sent to DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.

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

Outside Walt Disney World's property, Disney employee Nicholas Maldonado was a lone protester Tuesday, wearing a rainbow flag and holding a sign reading, "Trans rights are human rights" and "#DisneyDoBetter."

"Where was Chapek when the bill was introduced?" said Maldonado, who had a day off from his merchandising job at an Orlando Disney store and, while disappointed with Chapek's initial response, said he felt Disney's leaders were beginning to hear the concerns of the company's workers.

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

"That's why people felt surprised that they wanted to stay quiet on this issue," she said.

Organizers of the walkout maintain that withholding political contributions isn't enough.

On a website calling for the walkout, the group says that until the legislation is repealed, Disney leaders need to stop investments in Florida, including the relocation of 2,000 mostly professional jobs from its California headquarters to Orlando. They also say Disney needs to develop an LGBTQ brand similar to the Onyx Collective, an initiative aimed at developing content by and for people of colour.

About 20 Disney workers gathered at New York City's Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement, to write letters in support of families affected by the Florida legislation.

Jonathan Shutt, a senior product manager for Disney Streaming Services, said he was aware that not every worker who wanted to participate could do so and that the company "just needs to do better."

"There are many of us who are privileged enough to be able to do this, to be able to walk out and stand up for people," Shutt said.