Disney had a tight-lipped culture. Then Florida happened

A group of Walt Disney Co. employees has organized a series of strikes to protest the Burbank-based entertainment giant’s response to controversial Florida law restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The protests — which included a planned rally at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Griffith Park late Tuesday morning — culminated in weeks of backlash by employees against Chief Executive Bob Chapek’s response to Florida’s Parent Rights in Education Act, which derided the nickname “Don’t say gay” carries “opponents’ bill that bans teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade and could impose restrictions for other ages.”

In Burbank on Tuesday, dozens of Disney employees, some carrying “Disney Say Gay” and “#disneydobetter” signs, gathered in front of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building where they posed for a group photo at 9:30 a.m

The ongoing employee revolt also marks a clear break with Disney’s normally closed corporate culture, in which employees have long been extremely loyal and protective of the company.

The entertainment powerhouse, which employs almost 200,000 people worldwide, is famous for its unique corporate ethos. Disney has its own language and refers to workers as “cast members”. The company even has its own professional development arm, known as the Disney Institute, which hosts summits for business people and offers online courses on leadership and employee engagement.

And though its public image is warm, fuzzy, and kid-friendly, Disney has long had a secretive and top-down corporate culture where employees rarely publicly challenge top management.

With the exception of the unionized amusement park workers, who have sometimes protested wages and other working conditions, employees were reluctant to speak ill of the Mouse House. People who come to Disney, especially in departments like animation, tend to be die-hard fans.

However, the Florida controversy shook those norms, drawing a critical mass of insiders to criticize management, sometimes publicly and on social media platforms.

“Disney has always been a tough place,” said Jason E. Squire, professor emeritus of film economics at USC. “Today, in her honor, the base is in turmoil. These issues have encouraged enough employees to actually make a difference.”

However, the broader pressures on Chapek at this early stage in his tenure are not just related to legislation. It’s also about a spate of complaints from fans and employees who have stalked Chapek since he succeeded Bob Iger as CEO two years ago.

The controversies have spanned a public fiasco over Scarlett Johansson’s box office bonuses for “Black Widow”, the decision to relocate theme park attraction designers (known as Imagineers) to Florida, a streaming-focused reorganization of Disney’s business, and the introduction of additional fees for Skip Skip the lines at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Jason Moser, an analyst at the Motley Fool who follows Disney, said the company’s struggles reflect the difficulties of being a CEO, especially after the resignation of a respected leader like Iger, who officially resigned in January. Among Chapek’s top priorities is expanding the company’s streaming services, including Disney+.

But he must also show that he can lead a modern company and a staff that is more vocal and demanding of their bosses than previous generations.

“Right now, Chapek has a burden of proving he’s the right person for the job,” Moser said. “This is a step in the process of learning what Bob Chapek will ultimately be like as a leader, so I think that’s probably how most investors see it.”

Chapek first tried to keep Disney out of the political crosshairs, arguing in an email to employees that corporate statements could backfire and that the company was better able to change culture through movies and TV shows.

But the attempt at neutrality led to condemnation on all sides. LGBTQ employees were upset by the email and made their feelings known in internal Slack messages, emails to senior management and, in some cases, social media.

Dana Terrace, creator of The Owl House on Disney Channel, tweeted that she was “tired of making Disney look good.”

Employees at Disney departments, including Pixar Animation Studios, have sent letters to top executives asking for further action on the Florida Act and other laws making their way across the states. In a sign of rising tensions, departments representing ABC News, ESPN and parks and resort staff released messages of solidarity and support for fellow LGBTQ people on Tuesday.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign the law, has blasted Disney as a “woke” company and blasted the company for doing business in China despite human rights abuses.

Chapek eventually apologized to employees via email and vowed to suspend political donations to Florida while the company revises its advocacy policies.

Even that wasn’t enough for many employees, who have demanded that Disney permanently halt donations to politicians who support the law.

Disney entities, including Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm, made statements on social media that went further than Chapek’s in blowing up the legislation, as well as similar bills that have leaked out in other states.

“We strongly condemn all laws that violate the basic human rights of the LGBTQIA+ community,” Marvel said in a statement on Instagram. “Marvel Studios stands for hope, inclusivity and strength; and we proudly stand by the side of the community.”

Some networks with Disney-owned ESPN observed a minute’s silence on Friday to protest the Florida bill during an NCAA women’s basketball tournament game.

It wasn’t clear how many people would take part in Tuesday’s strike, considering many company employees are still working remotely.

The protest followed a week of smaller demonstrations by Disney employees who left their desks for 15-minute afternoon breaks. Some of the daily protests over the past week have seen a few dozen employees gather at Disney Legends Plaza on the Burbank property.

The company moved a panel discussion on LGBTQ+ issues, part of its Reimagine Tomorrow initiative of events promoting diversity and inclusion, from Tuesday to Monday so it doesn’t disrupt the protest.

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