By MIKE SCHNEIDER
Associated Press Writer
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) - They use 15-foot ladders to pluck
passengers from a broken Peter Pan ride. They treat theme park
visitors who sometimes wilt in the summer heat. They free hotel
guests from stalled elevators.
Whenever there's trouble at Walt Disney World, emergency workers
from Disney's personal government come to the rescue.
But the 142 firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers who protect
resort guests are dissatisfied employees, having worked without a
contract for two years. They're unhappy with proposals on wages and
health insurance for retirees. Union leaders complain they've been
harassed by managers.
They feel they're not getting the same rights as other public
workers when it comes to collective bargaining because Disney's
government, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, answers to a
private company rather than voters.
"Other fire departments, they can go and petition the mayor,
city councilmen and other politicians, and they can go and work to
influence the election, help them out at campaigns, contribute
money," said Rick Spence, a firefighter for 15 years. "We don't
have that opportunity here."
C. Ray Maxwell, Reedy Creek's administrator, said union leaders
haven't allowed members to vote on a contract proposal that he
described as competitive with the local market during the two years
of negotiations.
"There is a question of acting in good faith," Maxwell said.
"Every time you make an offer, they come back and want more."
The Legislature created Reedy Creek in 1967 at the urging of
Disney officials who had just announced plans to build a theme park
outside Orlando. Disney wanted political autonomy and the power to
issue tax-exempt bonds like other governments to finance projects.
The 25,000-acre district is governed by a five-member Board of
Supervisors, which is elected by landowners in the district. Disney
controls about 90 percent of the voting power. Board members are
non-Disney businesspeople from central Florida and must own at
least an acre in the district.
Hidden away from Cinderella's Castle, far removed from the
costumed workers dressed as Winnie the Pooh and Snow White, Reedy
Creek keeps Disney World running. Its workers ensure rides get the
electricity they need to run smoothly, potholes are filled on
resort roads, and the water is running at Disney's 21 hotels.
The firefighters and other emergency workers are represented by
the Reedy Creek Fire Fighters Association. The union wants to sue
the state of Florida to challenge the constitutionality of the
process for resolving labor disputes as it relates to Reedy Creek
and other special taxing districts.
The process, called an impasse resolution process, is used when
labor and management in a collective bargaining dispute can't
resolve their differences. The firefighters declared an impasse
last month and they're waiting for the state to appoint a mediator.
If the mediator's recommendations are rejected by either side,
state law allows either side to bring their complaints to the
controlling legislative body - in this case Reedy Creek's Board of
Supervisors. The legislative body will hold a public hearing and
decide the outcome, which is only binding for one year.
The firefighters argue that Reedy Creek's board is not a genuine
legislative body elected by voters because Disney selects its
members. The firefighters want an independent arbitrator to make
any binding decisions.
"We have no way to effect the political system, to lobby our
interests," said Rick Gorsuch, president of the Reedy Creek Fire
Fighters Association Local 2117.
But Reedy Creek's Maxwell said that can be done through the
board.
"I guarantee it, they're as independent as anybody can be,"
Maxwell said. "The integrity of that board is beyond reproach."
Maxwell said the board should be involved with the impasse
resolution process because the firefighters are protecting the
assets of Disney World.
The labor dispute centers on wages, whether certain retirees who
have left the fire department before age 65 can get medical
insurance retroactively and whether code enforcement workers can be
included in the union contract. Disney's firefighters currently
earn between $35,000 and $55,000 a year, which is competitive for
the Orlando market.
Joseph Little, a law professor at the University of Florida,
said the firefighters have a "contrived" argument if they sue to
change the impasse resolution process and suggested they go to the
state Legislature to seek a change. But he conceded there was a
distinction between Disney's workers and other public employees.
"Whether or not that distinction is enough to make (the law)
... unconstitutional, that's what I'm dubious about," he said.
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On the Net:
Reedy Creek Improvement District: www.state.fl.us/rcid/
Reedy Creek Firefighters Association, Local 2117:
www.reedycreek.org/

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)