IN PART ONE OF our two-part series on union labor and special events, we heard from event professionals across North America about their techniques for successful communication with organized labor. Here, event-makers talk about union pitfalls, missteps and shakedowns, and advise when to use tact and when to tough it out. To protect ongoing relationships, those quoted prefer to remain anonymous.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
One corporate event producer remembers a situation that called for patience and persistence in equal measure.
“I was on a site where I hired a decorator to come in to lay a dance floor that lit up,” she says. “The union was really clear to me, saying, ‘You can bring it in, and you can bring it onto the floor, but we have to set it up.’” Unfortunately, the workers who carried the floor were not fluent English-speakers, and had not been briefed about the union's demands. “They brought it in and started setting it up, and the union just went crazy,” the producer says. “I had to explain that they didn't understand the environment they were in, and tell [the union crew], ‘Please relax. We'll let you set up. We're not trying to not give you this job.’”
The union workers eventually relented, after much explanation and peace-making. The producer admits that the conflict was caused in part by the language barrier and in part by lack of preparation. Now, she says, she has learned to “communicate exactly what the job is about and exactly what I need in terms of labor” to everyone involved on an event.
MAKE YOUR MOVE
An industry professional with a 20-year history in event production says his experiences have taught him to take measures into his own hands when the situation demands.
A typical experience when working with union labor, he says, “might be I'm sitting there waiting for a union person to do something, and I can't make my next move until it happens. That person's now an hour late, two hours late.” When that occurs, he says, “I generally pick it up and do it myself.” In order to fulfill his contract and avoid future conflict, “I'll still pay the union whatever the guy was supposed to earn,” he adds, “but I can't keep a crew standing there for an hour or two waiting for someone to do one small task.”
He says that striking a balance — “I'll take the wrath, [but] at the same time, I'll pay the bill” — has carried him through such frustrating circumstances, and made for on-time load-in and setup, helping assure an event's success.
TRUTH OR SCARE
Though most of the event professionals we spoke with said their local unions generally operated with integrity and ethics, one event director recalls an incident with a less scrupulous group.
Because the organization sponsoring her event — a trade-show-related party — was on a strict budget, it had brought on more than 400 volunteers to help with production, and selected a non-union venue. The event director explains that she secured a permit to use the site. Nevertheless, the day before the event, “We had three union gentlemen walk up to us at registration and ask who was in charge,” she says. A novice event organizer at the time, she recalls, “I explained very sweetly that the reason we made the selection was because it was a non-union property.” The union representatives insisted that the site was indeed a union venue, and threatened to disrupt the festivities if she did not use union labor. “It was enough to give me a good scare,” she says.
Trusting her intuition and the information she received from local event professionals familiar with the venue, the event director decided to stand her ground. “The evening of the event, there wasn't a picket sign in place; nobody came to do anything. That basically meant I had been bullied,” she says frankly. “But I called their bluff.”
Instead of souring her on union labor altogether, the incident has given her perspective, she insists. Union labor is still essential in many convention halls and for event clients with big budgets and large space demands, she says, but “the nature of our beast tends to be different.” Because the trade show associated with her event was made up of small businesses rather than mega-corporations, and because working with a limited budget allowed event organizers to pass on cost savings to attendees, going non-union “just made good sense,” she says.