Jean Bustamante views the nation's raging healthcare debate in very personal terms.
Her 8-year-old son, Ethan, is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, she says, and his medications alone would cost her $1,000 a month if she were uninsured.
"My job and the health insurance are a lifeline," said Bustamante, a single mother of two who works as a waitress at the Steakhouse 55 restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. "If that goes, I would lose everything."
She was among dozens of Disney workers participating in a noisy protest at the doors of the Anaheim Convention Center last week, on the first day of Disney's D23 Expo for the studio's fans. The employees are at the center of a nasty labor dispute focusing on health benefits that is jolting the self-proclaimed "happiest place on earth."
The clash pits image-conscious Walt Disney Co. against Unite Here Local 11, an aggressive union known for its street-theater militancy. On Thursday, union supporters dressed as Snow White, Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters staged a mass "sick-in" while Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger was scheduled to speak inside the convention center.
Local 11 says the company, which took in $4.4 billion in net income last year, has betrayed Walt Disney's family-friendly ethos by asking 2,100 employees of three hotels to pay a share of their premiums if they seek company healthcare.
Disney accuses Local 11 of putting more time into protests than bargaining.
"The approach of Local 11's leadership is unreasonable," said Steve Eisenhardt, vice president of labor relations at Disney parks and resorts.
The dispute is indicative of how fast-rising healthcare costs have pushed the issue to the forefront of labor-management relations, just as it is center stage on Capitol Hill. Disney employees say a major appeal of their relatively low-wage jobs is virtually free healthcare under the Local 11 contract.
"Disney is a big enough and rich enough company to afford to pay for our coverage," said David McCluskey, a $8-an-hour waiter at Steakhouse 55, who added that he came to Disney two years ago after working in restaurants for two decades without insurance. "After all, we, the workers, are the ones who make the magic happen."
Disney is seeking to shift the workers into its Signature plan, in which the company pays 75% of all premiums. The rest would be deducted from employees' paychecks. The plan, says Disney, more accurately reflects the healthcare cost-sharing prevalent in the workplace.
"Local 11 wants to continue to provide free healthcare to its members and pass along all the costs to employers," Eisenhardt said. "That's just not reasonable in these economic times."
Under Disney's plan, employees' share would be phased in over five years. But the union argues that some employees would eventually have to pay as much as $500 a month -- an amount many call prohibitive, especially for this low-wage, largely immigrant workforce.
"I'd have to go without insurance and rely on the public system," said Juan Ruiz, who has two daughters and works as a waiter at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. "The company needs to realize that we are families working for Disney. Not everyone is a teenager or college kid relying on their parents' insurance."
Management calls the $500-a-month figure inflated and says the true employee share for full family coverage is closer to $250 a month. The company says it is not callous.
"We care about [workers'] well-being and are committed to ensuring that all cast members have access to quality and reliable healthcare coverage," said Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown, using the term for employees.
According to Disney, several hundred Local 11 members already participate in Signature, which offers seven plans, including Cigna and Kaiser. But employees fear losing all their coverage.
The Disney proposal requires a minimum of 30 hours of work a week to be covered, and the union plan has a much lower threshold -- 70 hours a month. Disney says existing employees with coverage would be grandfathered in. Bustamante and other part-timers, however, are skeptical that their coverage would survive under the Disney plan.
Last month, Local 11 members overwhelmingly rejected Disney's contract offer, with healthcare the major sticking point. The two sides seem far from an agreement.
"The company has made its last, best and final offer," Eisenhardt said.