Disney finds itself in the political and cultural crosshairs over “Don’t Say Gay” bill

With some workers across the United States threatening to strike Tuesday, The Walt Disney Co. finds itself in a balancing act between the diverse expectations and demands of an increasingly polarized and politicized marketplace.

On one side are LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees calling for a strike in protest of CEO Bob Chapek’s slow response in publicly criticizing the Florida legislation. dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation, officially called “Parental Rights in Education,” prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. It would also allow parents to sue school districts that violate those restrictions.

The measure passed the Florida Senate earlier this week and is expected to be signed by the Republican governor. Ron DeSantis, who supports the bill. DeSantis is seen as a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2024.

On the other side of the dispute are politicians like DeSantis, who accuses Disney of leaning toward canceling culture following a decision by Disney to temporarily suspend political contributions in the state.

Chapek, who became CEO of Disney in 2020, has been criticized for speaking out about the gender identity bill only after it passed the Florida Legislature. Disney opposed the bill from the startBut he thought it better to oppose behind the scenes, according to Chapek, who said he called DeSantis to express “concern that if the legislation becomes law, it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender boys and girls.” “. families.”

After Chapek publicly spoke out against the move at Disney’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, DeSantis lashed out at the entertainment giant, one of Florida’s largest employers. According to conservative critics of Disney, the company should focus on making a profit instead of getting involved in the fight for the bill.

Students Across Florida Protest “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

Evan Power, chairman of the Leon County Republican Party, said he believes a strident minority of Disney employees is pushing the issue and that DeSantis has the most to gain by siding with parents who want more control over education. and “sexual talk” in the early years. grades at school.

“I think it pays dividends with parents across the state of Florida, regardless of political divisions,” Power said.

Union officials representing tens of thousands of workers at Disney theme parks in Florida and Anaheim, California, including the hundreds of costumed performers who played Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Stitch at Walt Disney World, said it didn’t seem there be no impetus for a strike.

“We don’t support that,” Romualdas Dulskis, an official with the Orlando Teamsters, whose local represents costumed characters, bus drivers and other Disney workers, said Monday. “That’s not the way we’re going to approach this.”

Union leaders said they had advised their members not to participate because their contract prohibits work stoppages.

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

One of the strike organizers, a New York-based employee, said they expected a higher share of Disney workers in production, marketing, IT and other desk jobs than those in hourly union jobs. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of being attacked online and because organizers did not want a single organizer to be the center of attention.

Part of the goal of the strike is for those workers with the “privilege” to be able to protest to defend those who can’t, the New York employee said.

ESPN employees protest bill

the legislation, described as “hateful” by President Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardonait has sparked protests by LGBTQ advocates across the country and middle and high school students in Florida where they are protesting the bill. have also taken place.

Employees of Disney-owned ESPN continue to support their Disney co-workers in protest of the Florida legislation, after holding numerous walkouts over the past week. Several ESPN announcers also observed moments of silence on the air during coverage of the game, protesting the bill. The first to do so were ESPN commentators Carolyn Peck and Courtney Lyle during the NCAA Women’s Tournament. After expressing solidarity with their colleagues in Florida in opposition to the bill, the two remained silent for two minutes, the Washington Post reported. reported.

Disney workers participating in the March 22 strike plan to gather at locations in Orlando, New York City, Anaheim and Burbank, California, where the company is based. A Disney spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment. Instead, the company released a statement on the official Disney Parks Instagram indirectly condemning the “Parental Rights in Education” legislation.

“Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products is committed to creating experiences that support family values ​​for every family, and will not tolerate discrimination in any form. Cast, crew, imaginers, and fans making their voices heard today and every day,” the statement said.

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

Disney, whose films and properties shaped generations of children around the world, has spoken out several times in recent years on controversial social and political issues.

It was one of a host of US 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 withdraw his business from the state, which has become a darling of film and television studios. The bill was vetoed by the then Governor of Georgia.

History of involvement in social issues.

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

Republican lawmakers who sponsored 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.

Chapek apologized earlier this month for not speaking 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 on all political donations in Florida and more support for advocacy groups fighting similar laws in other states. Chapek reiterated those points during a company-wide discussion with employees on Monday.

For a long time, Disney has been controlling Florida politics, tending to be conservative and supporting the Republicans who have been in control of Tallahassee, the state capital, for two decades, but also being more outspoken on social issues, Patricia said. Campos-Medina, co-director. of the Labor Institute at Cornell University. “That’s why people were surprised that they wanted to say silence on this issue,” she said.

Florida approves restrictions on LGBTQ issues in schools

Strike organizers argue that withholding political contributions is not enough.

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

Power, the official GOP in Tallahassee, said he is confident that Disney and Florida Republicans will get past this critical point and restore their relationship, eventually.

“It’s good that we’re backing down, because the purpose of a public company is not to push an agenda,” Power said. “The people of Disney know that they need to work with the Legislature and the Governor, and they will come back.”