It wasn’t exactly glad tidings for the holiday, but the workers of the world of Disney cheered loudly in late December as they voted overwhelmingly to reject the company’s latest contract offer for its thousands of Orlando service employees. The workers chose to demand more negotiations rather than settle for a miserly wage offer, even if it meant heading into the new year with more uncertainty.
The political climate has raised the stakes for the wage talks, as Florida’s massive hospitality workforce has been besieged by a brutal storm season, stagnant wages amid soaring costs of living, and, under Trump, an onslaught of federal immigration crackdowns. Disney, meanwhile, is rounding out a banner year with a deal to take over the 21st Century Fox empire.
According to the contract schedule, the union can renegotiate wages now as part of a contract renewal in 2019. Disney’s last offer for a pay increase fell short of the demand from the union, UNITE HERE’s Service Trades Council, for a $15 starting hourly wage. Currently only about one in eight of the 38,000 union workers, including some 10,000 hospitality and housekeeping staffers, along with cast members and ride operators, earns $15 an hour. The last wage hike at Disney inched up starting pay from $8.03 to $10.
The company’s current proposal would increase raises from 6 to 10 percent over two years, resulting in a boost in the floor wage of about 50 cents annually, and even less for higher-paid workers. The union has been pushing for living wages for months, pointing out that many resort workers are being pushed into homelessness. While Disney previously promised to work toward “fair and equitable” terms in the negotiations, workers drew the line in early December, rejecting Disney’s bid by a vote of 9,117 to 643.
While wage negotiations remain in limbo, the situation is even more complex for the Haitian immigrants in Disney’s workforce: The Trump administration is moving, over the coming months, to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for tens of thousands of immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, and other countries who have lived and worked in the United States under special protections following massive environmental and social catastrophes in their homelands. Though the system is highly precarious, over the years many immigrants from the Global South have used the temporary status to gain legal employment and sustain financial ties to disaster-stricken countries. Overall, TPS holders from Haiti have contributed an estimated $2.8 billion to Haiti’s GDP over a decade. Their remittances provide not only a massive infusion of much-needed cash for Haiti’s deeply impoverished economy—still not recovered from the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake—but also support vital diaspora communities in the United States. Roughly half of the 110,000 Haitian migrants residing in the US are here on TPS.
They came as survivors of unprecedented environmental crisis; since the early 2000s the country has suffered political conflict, a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed much of the urban core, followed by a ferocious epidemic of cholera, and to this day the country still remains extremely poor and unstable. The Orlando metro area is among the diaspora’s top host regions, with about 3,000 Haitian TPS migrants. The local tourism sector, which Disney dominates, has provided a steady source of low-wage jobs for Haitian immigrants. Collectively, while their annual wages average only around $18,300 (considerably less than Honduran or El Salvadoran TPS workers’), Haitian TPS holders contribute nearly $43 million per year in Medicare and Social Security funds. At the same time, the TPS population has become a bulwark of diasporic communities in the United States, comprising parents, students, and political activists, including active union members.
The administration’s announcement that it would cut off TPS triggered a nationwide public outcry from labor and civil-rights groups, who seek an immediate extension, as the Obama administration had regularly done. The TPS end date has officially passed for Haitians, but, under public pressure, the White House is giving migrants until 2019 to officially depart.
UNITE HERE organizer Wilna Destin helped rally union activists and other migrant-rights groups to push for TPS, as well as an extension of the DACA protections for undocumented youth, on behalf of some 500 Haitian TPS Disney workers. The union has become a leading champion of immigrant workers’ rights under Trump, pressuring both employers and lawmakers to help protect undocumented workers from ICE raids and detention by establishing “sanctuary” policies in municipalities as well as for workplaces. Many of Destin’s fellow union members have been on “temporary” status for years, but are now being uprooted from their new lives and sent back to an extremely unstable homeland. Some migrants are too frightened to risk remaining in the country and have tried to escape across the US-Canada border—seeking asylum in a second country of refuge.
Destin herself is supporting family members back in Haiti, where her mother and cousins still live. In communities of extended family networks, she adds, “We don’t see only brothers and sisters, we see cousins, we see neighbors. If you’re here, everybody depends on you. I have a classmate from high school, she has six children, when she calls me…I have to send her something. It’s not only family, you know, it’s everybody.”
The 18-month departure window does buy the workers a bittersweet reprieve, though: It gives them just enough time to make it to the next round of contract talks in 2019. In fact, employers in Orlando and other major TPS destination cities are heavily dependent on Haitian migrants—if all these workers were to lose their legal status (and employment authorization), according to one projection by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, it would lead to massive job displacement and business-turnover costs of nearly $60 million.
But those massive figures aren’t the main concern of workers like Nervela Charles, who makes $10.50 an hour cleaning about 18 hotel rooms a day at Disney’s All-Star Music Resort. With five children to support, she struggles daily to keep up with the cost of housing and utilities in an area where a living hourly wage is approximately $24 for a one-parent household with a child. For now, the number she’s focusing on is $15, as she counts the days she and her coworkers have left to get there.
“If you don’t have the money,” she says, “then you can’t do nothing [to] fight for a better life.… Every day I’m working, hard, hard, hard—no money. I have my dreams I’m fighting for; that’s [why I] fight.”