Contract negotiations are seldom easy, but this could be a new low. Talks between Disney and one of the resort's biggest unions are stalled for an unlikely reason: The parties have spent two months trying to agree on a meeting place.
Union leaders believe that rancor over a dispute about housing for workers in the Anaheim Resort District has spilled into talks between Walt Disney Co. and employees at three Disney hotels. The contract between Disney and the union representing 2,200 housekeepers, bartenders, bellmen, dishwashers and cooks expired last week.
On several occasions over the last year, hundreds of resort workers have packed Anaheim City Hall, wearing stickers and carrying signs in support of a large residential project in the Resort District that would have included 225 low-cost apartments. Disney and tourism officials also showed up in force, wearing their own stickers and T-shirts in support of keeping the area around the amusement parks free of housing.
The project collapsed months ago, but union leaders believe the bitterness remains.
Ada Briceno, president of Unite Here Local 681, aired her concerns last week at a City Council meeting, two days before the previous four-year contract expired.
"Historically, the Disney negotiations have been held on Disney property. . . . We can't help but wonder if Disney's sudden change in posture comes in retaliation for our members' role in the contentious issue that dominated political debate in Anaheim last year," she said.
"It's not our intention to bring that issue back, but it would not be right for Disney to stifle workers' voices and threaten their livelihoods for the sole purpose of political payback," she said.
Disney officials say contract negotiations and the housing discussion are "two completely separate issues."
"We care about our [employees], and we are trying to take a very reasonable approach to these negotiations," said John Nicoletti, a Disney spokesman. "We've been trying to locate a sensible meeting place since December. We've been available."
Union officials are demanding that the talks take place on Disney's home turf, at one of the company's three resort hotels. "It allows workers to have a voice. Disney wants to stifle that voice, insisting negotiations be held off-site where parking could be scarce, access limited and workers would have a much harder time being part of the process," Briceno told the City Council.
Disney has proposed meeting at a neutral location -- the Anaheim Hilton, located in the Resort District. Disney officials say holding talks at a Disney hotel would be disruptive to guests and employees.
"We've heard there was an issue with parking, and we've offered to pay for that," Nicoletti said. "We heard the location was too far away, but it's across the street from the resort. We are also following an industry standard, and that's holding negotiations in a neutral site."
For a week, Disney officials have been waiting for union negotiators in a Hilton meeting room.
Federal mediator Raul Lopez said he was not optimistic about a quick resolution to the negotiations. "Someone needs to compromise," said a clearly frustrated Lopez. "Right now there's no need for a mediator if they can't even agree where to meet. They are going to need to work it out themselves."
Robert Ortiz, a bellman at the Disneyland Hotel for 14 years, said he was "insulted" by Disney's insistence on holding the talks away from company property. "It's very important for us to be able to listen in," said Ortiz, a union committee member. "People are curious to see what lies in their future the next four years. The company's position has agitated people, and it's a reflection of how they think of us."
Realizing that Disney and the hotel workers are far apart, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) has been talking with both sides in an attempt to get them to the table. Sanchez said she believed the stalemate stemmed not from the housing dispute, but from a potential conflict over health insurance.
"I think Disney is looking at how they can keep their costs from going sky high," she said.
Briceno said that although employees' starting pay is less than $9 an hour, the hotel workers have a healthcare package that is "free" and carries only a $5 co-pay.
"Our pay contract is one of the cheapest in the hotel industry," Briceno said. "So that's why our healthcare is very dear and close to our hearts."
Disney officials declined to address specific contract issues but said they had sent letters to employees on the status of negotiations. Briceno said two letters were sent and both were "threatening."