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Special Events

Getting to Know the Locals

If you plan or produce events regularly, chances are you'll eventually wind up working in a union venue. For many event professionals, working with labor unions can be a good, even great experience, as long as expectations are established early and needs are met effectively — by both parties.

In part one of our two-part series, we turn to event planners, producers and managers from cities across the United States and Canada to learn their tips and techniques for working with unions. In part two, appearing in an upcoming issue, we will focus on the unique challenges and advantages of doing business with organized labor.


Constant communication is key, event pros say, whether working with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Teamsters or any number of unions handling duties from hauling generators to hanging drapes. And the flow of information needs to move in two directions where union event facilities are concerned, says Robert Sivek, CSEP, chief operating officer of Elmhurst, Ill.-based The Meetinghouse Companies.

Sivek says his first plan of action when dealing with a union facility is to “ease into it” by speaking with the facility salesperson. “If you ask the unions directly,” he says, “they're likely to [try to] maintain jurisdiction over everything.” Next, Sivek says, he talks to industry colleagues and union-member friends to “get the straight scoop,” finally turning to a union job steward to go over details.

Just as important as researching the union's jurisdiction at the venue, Sivek says, is providing the union with a clear understanding of the entire event, and of his specific labor needs. He advises event planners to “provide each union representative with an up-to-date copy of your production plan and discuss your activities with him or her.”

An added benefit, adds Matthew David Hopkins of New York-based Matthew David Events, is that “involving union labor in the pre-production of a large event goes a long way in negotiating the amount of union labor on the job.” That's important to Hopkins, who sees not just a cost advantage in limited, efficient union labor, but also increased freedom to execute his design ideas. “Our regular labor know my style and I can direct them without having to be on top of their every move,” he says.

Speaking on behalf of San Francisco-based IATSE Local 16, union business manager F.X. Crowley says, “When an event planner contacts Local 16, they are invited to meet with a Local 16 representative who will discuss specific parameters of their event.” Among topics that are covered, he explains, are venue-specific work rules, union crew scheduling, and any special labor skills the planner may require. In all cases, Crowley says, Local 16 works with the planner “to assure that their needs are met in the most efficient, safe and competent way.”


According to many event professionals, on-site problems or billing complications can be avoided, or at least addressed, through careful planning.

Crowley says one of the biggest mistakes event planners make when working with his local is “not planning hour to hour the work that needs to be performed and the crew that will be needed to execute that work in the given time.”

Not where Heather Keenan, president of San Francisco-based Key Events, is concerned. “I'm so organized, it's not funny,” the event producer says. “If anybody has five seconds, I have another job for them. I keep tabs on where we are and where we have to go, and I keep that in front of people.”

While she expects a lot from union laborers, Keenan adds, “I also respect their rules. If they need a lunch, I give them a lunch.” To avoid wasted time and extra cost, she tries to have substantial meals available on site, so union workers don't have to leave the premises. “If they can stop working and sit down and eat right then, and have their 20 minutes to make phone calls or relax or whatever they need to do, it helps,” she says.

Sivek adds that in his part of the country, he's found that union rules “tend to be loosening a little bit so that they're becoming more event-friendly.” Nevertheless, he says, unions do maintain regulations about duties, hours and meals, and, he insists, it's important to abide by them. “We treat the union with respect,” he says. “We try to know what they need and want up front.” That information can help planners avoid racking up extra costs, he explains.


Though penalties for violating union rules are not something event planners should automatically expect to accrue, “they're not always avoidable,” Sivek says. Oversights in pre-planning, or shipments of the wrong equipment, for instance, may have on-the-clock union workers standing around with nothing to do, he says.

At the same time, union crews may not always let you know when they're going into overtime, he cautions. “They may just keep working, and you get this whopping bill at the end.” But, he insists, event planners must assume part of the responsibility. “You don't expect a taxi driver to tell you when the meter's going to click again,” he says.

Extra costs are something Carolyn Luscombe, CSEP, of Toronto-based Eclectic Events International prepares for in the event coordination stage. After factoring in a union's special needs or requirements, she estimates an hourly labor cost. Then, she either adds a contingency fee to this amount, or stipulates in her contract that excess hours will be charged to the client. “We try to get them to pre-pay some of it, so we're not stuck with it and so it doesn't seem like a huge bill at the end,” she says.

RESOURCES: Eclectic Events International, 416/413-7887; IATSE Local 16, 415/243-0179; Key Events, 415/695-8000; Matthew David Events, 212/627-2086; The Meetinghouse Companies, 630/941-0600


Break Time: Times guaranteed to union workers during which they do not work. Coffee breaks, lunch breaks and time in between shows can fall into this category.

Minimum: The least amount of time that a union worker may be contracted for. This entire period of time must be paid for regardless of number of hours actually worked.

Stagehand: Sometimes referred to as a decorator. Duties can include pipe and drape installation and dismantlement, as well as moving items from place to place. These workers are also usually responsible for hanging signs, banners, etc.

Steward: Usually the highest ranking union official at a site. Stewards are there to make sure the unions and their contractors are both following the rules and that union personnel work within their jurisdiction. This person usually has the final “say-so” in a dispute.

Teamster: Often used as a generic term for a union worker, but more appropriately applies to a member of the Teamsters Union. Usually this union is involved in loading, unloading and transportation.

From Working with Unions at Facilities, by Robert Sivek, published in ISES Gold: An Anthology of Expertise from Members of the International Special Events Society.

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