New Internationalist

Service With A Smile

Issue 308

Service with a smile

Wayne Ellwood talks to a Disney trade-union activist about working in the fun factory.

Mike Cohen: 'daily verbal abuse'. In Orlando they call it the ‘Mouse Factory’ – or sometimes just ‘the Rat’. But whatever name you want to use, the Walt Disney complex has a powerful impact on employment in this part of central Florida. In fact in many ways Orlando is a classic ‘company town’. There isn’t a stout mill-owner perched in a hillside mansion and the factory chimneys don’t spew out thick black smoke but the company’s influence in the city and surrounding Orange County is just as powerful.

‘Disney controls this town, there’s no doubt about it.’ Mike Cohen flicks through the papers on his desk and ignores the insistent ring of the telephone at his elbow. Cohen is a trade unionist and a militant one at that, not a common commodity in this part of the southern US.

Local 362 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a spartan office in a nondescript strip development off the Orange Blossom Trail, a short drive south of downtown Orlando. (My instructions were: ‘Drive three miles past the McDonald’s until you get to the Denny’s and then turn left at La Quinta Drive.’)

The SEIU is affiliated to the American Federation of Labor and represents cleaners, attractions workers, ticket-takers and animal-care workers at Disney’s Orlando theme-park complex.

Cohen is a vice-president of the local union branch, on leave from his regular job operating the Big Thunder Mountain amusement ride at Fantasyland in Disney World. Like a lot of the workers at Disney World, he’s from out-of-state. In this case, Texas.

‘I came here after my dad died,’ he recalls. ‘It changed me. I had $200 in my pocket and I had to make it on my own. I was a middle-class kid, there was lots I didn’t see and lots I didn’t know.’ Cohen’s been a Disney ‘cast member’ for almost eight years (nobody is a worker or even an employee at the Disney Company). That’s a long time in an industry where typically people stick around for a year, maybe two.

‘There is a huge turnover rate,’ says Cohen. ‘We’re talking 200 or 300 per cent a year. You can make ten bucks an hour if you’re here for ten years, but because so many people leave, two-thirds of the workers at the park make $6.57 an hour or less.’ The company’s starting wage hasn’t changed in five years.

The Disney management boasts of being a progressive employer offering ‘competitive’ salaries. Cohen doesn’t buy it. ‘Sure they’re competitive compared to the minimum wage which is at the poverty level. And sure we get 30-per-cent off Disney merchandise, stuff that’s already priced way beyond what we can afford. People think we’re all high-school kids, but the median age in our bargaining unit is 38.’

The SEIU is part of the Service Trade Council Union (STCU), a consortium of six trade unions that is the only group certified to bargain with the Disney company. The STCU represents about 22,000 full-time workers at Disney World and another 5,000 part-timers. ‘People around here are suspicious of unions, no doubt about it,’ says Cohen. ‘That’s because a lot of them are corrupt or in bed with the company or just inactive. Very few of them are organizing politically or on job sites.’

Cohen is especially annoyed about the company’s ‘benchmark’ system of work monitoring. Time-motion experts keep constant track of the number of people using each attraction and all the turnstiles are computerized. ‘We have to push as many visitors through each ride as we can. That’s their main concern,’ complains Cohen. ‘If we don’t, we hear about it from management: “The counts are low, you need to pick up the counts.” You hear that constantly. They talk about the “hourly operational ride capacity”. But they never say, “Are you being safe enough?” At Big Thunder Mountain I’m supposed to handle 2,000 visitors an hour. It’s just like a factory with assembly-line production, only this is a fun factory.’

Workers are also ordered to flash a constant smile. Every employee is instructed in the ‘Seven Guidelines to Guest Service’ which highlights the need to smile and to be cheerful. ‘We get daily verbal abuse from customers but you have to keep on smiling,’ explains Cohen. ‘We’re supposed to make eye contact, greet each and every guest and smile for eight hours. If you don’t you get reprimanded.’

The goal of every Disney employee is to pump out happy people. And in Orlando they get a lot of them – almost a million a week. ‘There are more tourists than ever,’ says Mike Cohen. He leans back in his chair, pauses for a moment, then grins broadly. ‘I hear people saying, “Oh, the workers here aren’t as happy as they were last time I came.” And you know what? That’s probably true. But on $5.95 an hour you don’t expect anybody to be happy.’ •

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