by Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM | June 01, 2007

Planners often think of unions -- organizations of workers formed to protect members’ interests when it comes to wages and working conditions -- as rigid entities that are difficult and expensive to deal with. Nevertheless, knowing how to work with and not against them is essential for a better show, as partnering with unions typically will ensure a highly skilled and experienced work force.

Following are some tips for dealing with unions.

Learn the Roles

Unions that work on events generally are divided among the following categories:

Teamsters are licensed to handle and unload freight and oversee “drayage” -- the hauling of freight from loading docks to and from a venue.

Decorators/riggers/trade show installers rig banners and install booths, carpeting and all other trimmings.

Electricians facilitate all electrical needs.

Stage hands oversee anything having to do with stages, including installation and breakdown of lighting and audiovisual equipment.

Food and beverage workers handle meal preparation and serving and related services; they also might perform janitorial functions.

Know the Rules

Unions exist in virtually every city in the world. Some cities specifically are referred to as “union cities” -- e.g., Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Simply, this means there is a formal working arrangement between the unions, the city and the primary convention facilities. While the surrounding hotels are not necessarily bound by such agreements, they inevitably go along with them, as they often rely upon the city and convention centers to fill their rooms.

Different unions support one another and often share solidarity agreements, especially if they work together in the same facilities. The manner in which unions integrate varies from state to state. In California, for example, there is more leniency about union functions that overlap. In San Francisco, it’s not uncommon for stage hands and riggers to perform similar functions. In Chicago, on the other hand, teamsters can carry power strips to the show floor, but the strips need to be plugged into sockets by electricians.

Get to know local unions by visiting Familiarize yourself with their rules before finalizing your budget and projecting your production schedule.

Prepare for Strikes

One of the most stressful aspects of working with unions involves the threat of strikes. Work stoppages not only affect the event and attendees; they also can severely damage the facility and the host city.

Strike insurance is recommended for events that attract more than 100 attendees who have to travel a great distance. The coverage should be comprehensive, as liability might extend far beyond refunding fees, and it should include reimbursing large sponsorships as well as shipping and transportation costs, and the associated damages as perceived and defined by the stakeholders.

There are a number of specialty insurance brokers throughout the United States that can furnish strike insurance policies. Corporate planners should work through their legal departments.

When it comes to preparing a contingency plan, questions to ask include: Will you still attempt to hold the program in case of a strike? Would it be preferable to move or scale your program down? Would hiring nonunion substitutes be acceptable? Would hiring subs cause more liability? Might key participants/staff refuse to cross a picket line?

Most importantly, note that force majeure clauses covering your facility and entertainment do not include strikes unless specifically outlined in your contract.

Louise M. Felsher, CMP, CMM,is senior event operations manager with George P. Johnson Experience Marketing in San Carlos, Calif.