DeSantis Feud Not First Time Disney Employees Pushed Company to Back Them

Employee walkouts have pushed Disney into a heated fight with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but the recent feud is not the first time Disney workers have called on the company to defend them.

Back in 1995, Disney fielded criticisms related to the company's support for LGBTQ employees after it extended health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.

In response, conservatives throughout the South attacked Disney for expanding insurances and boycotted the company for promoting what they believed to be a particular agenda. At the time, the Florida Family Association released a statement accusing Disney of showing "outright disrespect and arrogance in their attitude toward the American family."

James O'Rourke, a professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, told Newsweek that the reason the pushback in the 1990s fell by the wayside was that then-Disney Chariman Michael Eisner had spoken out in support of his employees.

Disney Employee Feud Florida
A Disney employee protests outside of Walt Disney World on March 22, 2022 in Orlando, Florida as part of a company-wide walkout over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Octavio Jones/Getty

"At the time, Eisner said, 'We're not asking other people to do anything on our behalf or to lead their lives differently. We're just looking after our own employees, and we have the right to do that.' And the public agreed with it," O'Rourke said. "Ultimately, it just went away because public opinion, in general, moved in Disney's favor."

Last month, Disney was forced to make a statement about a parental rights bill that was making its way through the Florida Legislature, which opponents named the "Don't Say Gay" bill and argued would hurt LGBTQ children and families.

While a number of large corporations, including Marriott and American Airlines, quickly condemned the bill, Disney was not among the list of companies that did.

As hundreds of employees staged a walkout in protest of Disney's silence on the bill, CEO Bob Chapek finally addressed the controversy, saying he had personally called DeSantis to express Disney's opposition.

Citing Disney's efforts to work with legislators behind the scene, Chapek apologized to stakeholders for not taking a public stance earlier.

"It turns out that supporting people quietly doesn't feel like supporting people at all. It's pushing someone out in front of the curtain and saying you'll be cheering them on from backstage. That's not support, it's betrayal," Cait Lamberton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, told Newsweek. "Support happens when you stand on stage, alongside them, and fight for them to be respected."

Disney's criticisms of the Florida bill snowballed into a very public feud with DeSantis, who signed a bill revoking Disney World's special status in Orlando on Friday. But Lamberton said there was no way Disney could have remained silent to avoid this fight.

Not speaking out "was demoralizing their employee base—which if unchecked, would have destroyed their product," Lamberton explained. "It's a brand defined by fun and enchantment, and it asks its customer-facing employees to do a lot of emotional labor to sincerely represent fun and enchantment to the world."

"If those representatives instead become cynical and disenchanted, the Disney brand will be poisoned in ways that would be very difficult to cure," she said.

She pointed out that Disney employees work in a very particular industry, similar to that of flight attendants, that expects workers to do a lot of emotional labor.

"They're expected to create an environment of warmth, welcome, comfort and safety—and that can require a huge amount of effort," Lamberton said. "If you want employees to do emotional labor, you need to support their emotional wellness."

Disney LGBTQ Employees Controversy
The recent feud between Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Disney is not the company's first public controversy related to its support for the LGBTQ community. People from the Walt Disney Company participate in the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood, California, on June 9, 2019 David McNew/AFP

The one thing that experts say has changed between the Disney boycott in the 1990s and today's battle with DeSantis is that now, most people expect large companies and organizations to take a stance on political issues.

Thus, as long as a company takes a position that is true to their values, it shouldn't be concerned with how the position will be received.

"The one thing you know with certainty is that you cannot please everyone. So if you choose to take a stand on a political issue, you're almost certain to offend someone," O'Rourke said. "If your values are diversity, equity and inclusion, then the stand Disney took is perfectly rational."

"Consumers will see your willingness to accept real costs as a sign of authenticity—and that's something on which you can't place a value. And as was seen in this case, sins of omission can create real pain," Lamberton said.