Disney in balancing act as some workers walk out in protest

Disney cast member Nicholas Maldonado protests his company's stance on LGBTQ issues, while participating in an employee walkout at Walt Disney World, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Disney cast member Nicholas Maldonado protests his company's stance on LGBTQ issues, while participating in an employee walkout at Walt Disney World, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

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.

Throughout the day, pockets of employees staged demonstrations at various sites across 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 last October, with roughly three-quarters working in its theme parks division.

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

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

On one side are LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees calling for the walkout in protest of CEO Bob Chapek’s slow response in publicly criticizing Florida legislation that opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation awaiting the governor’s signature bars instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

On the other side are politicians like Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who accuse the entertainment conglomerate of bending to woke politics. Earlier this month, the company decided to temporarily suspend political contributions in Florida. DeSantis, who has been tacking toward the Republican base on culture war issues, is seen as a 2024 presidential hopeful.

Union leaders for the tens of thousands of unionized workers at Disney theme parks in Florida and California said they saw no walkout momentum among their members, advising them not to do so because it would defy contractual obligations.

Evan Power, Leon County’s Republican Party chairman, 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.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

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 center 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, California, studios, including one carrying rainbow-colored 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.

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.

In January 2021, it said it would suspend political donations to lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. It also threatened to pull business from Georgia — a favorite of movie and TV studios — following a 2016 anti-gay bill, which was ultimately vetoed by the then-governor.

Chapek, who became CEO in 2020, has now drawn fire for speaking out about the gender identity bill only after it passed the Florida Legislature.

Republican lawmakers pushing the Florida legislation 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 Democrats including Biden, who called it “hateful.” It has been sent to DeSantis, who is expected to sign it into law.

Chapek has apologized for not coming out more forcefully and publicly against the bill, saying Disney officials worked behind the scenes to stop it. Chapek also announced a pause to political donations in Florida and support for advocacy groups fighting similar legislation in other states, reiterating those points during a company-wide discussion 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 support 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.

Walkout organizers maintain that withholding political contributions isn’t enough.

The group of employees calling for the walkout said on its website 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 color.

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.

Cynthia Cooley, an enterprise program senior manager at Disney Streaming Services, said there was an unspoken signal among workers who decided to walk out, with participating employees putting a rainbow flag next to their names in the Slack messaging app.

“We don’t talk about Bruno,” she cracked, referring to the catchy song from the Disney movie “Encanto.”

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal