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Disney hotel workers to launch hunger strike in dispute over healthcare benefits

February 9, 2010 |  3:48 pm

Hotel and restaurant workers engaged in a two-year labor dispute with Disney centering on heathcare benefits plan to launch a public hunger strike Tuesday afternoon outside Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

Seven Disney staffers, two solidarity workers from the same union and the son of a Disney worker injured on the job will participate in the fast, according to Unite Here Local 11, which represents the workers. The hunger-strikers say they plan to take only water as they camp on the street outside the hotel.

Among those expected to attend a march and rally to mark the beginning of the hunger strike, the union says, are religious leaders, Disney employees, an Anaheim city councilwoman and Dolores Huerta, legendary co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America.

Union demonstrators will begin the rally outside Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel and march to the nearby Grand Californian, said Leigh Shelton, a Local 11 spokeswoman.

The nasty dispute pits image-conscious Disney against Local 11, an activist union known for its high-profile pressure tactics and street theater protests, often on behalf of low-wage immigrant workers.

Disney says that Local 11 has opted for grand-standing instead of negotiating and has called for a federal mediator to help resolve the matter.

“This kind of tactic is not productive and is meant to distract from the fact that after two years Local 11 members are still without a contract,” said Suzi Brown, a Disney spokeswoman. “The company is ready to meet today with an independent federal mediator in the hopes of making progress on negotiations.”

Disney calls Local 11’s demands unreasonable and denies union claims that workloads and injuries on the job have increased.

More than 2,000 Disney employees represented by Local 11 have been working on an expired contract because of the dispute, which is based largely on healthcare benefits. Under the expired contract, the workers have been receiving nearly free healthcare.

Disney is seeking to shift the workers into its Signature plan, in which the company says it pays about 75% of premiums. Disney says workers’ share would  be phased in over five years.

According to Disney, 30 of the 31 unions represented at the resort already participate in the Signature plan, and only Local 11 has balked, even as healthcare costs have risen.

But the union argues that some employees would eventually have to pay as much as $500 a month under the company plan. Disney calls the $500 figure inflated and says the true amount for full family coverage is closer to $250 a month.

-- Patrick J. McDonnell