by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | August 01, 2004

Meeting planners have enough to handle without having to face labor disputes. But this is a possible fly in the ointment when dealing with a unionized work force, as the United States has long recognized the right of employees to bargain collectively with management through labor unions.
    Sometimes planners encounter strife rather than a strike. Several years ago, for example, a major union began to circulate information urging meeting planners not to book certain hotels, since negotiations with the properties’ management had not gone well for their members. This urging of a boycott is not uncommon and can follow the refusal of the employer to recognize the union or an attempt by management to dissuade employees from joining a union.

Setting Up the Line
Organizations go a step further when they picket, an activity that generally comes in two forms. There can be a picket line established for purposes of informing the public and other unions that the property’s employees are on strike. Or the union will set up an informational picket line, where passersby are told about an ongoing situation between labor and management, but the employees are not yet on strike. 
    When union and management are at each other’s throats, nasty things can happen to meeting attendees, especially if the property has brought in temporary employees to replace the striking workers. Those on strike might resort to ploys such as blocking entryways, intimidating attendees, impeding deliveries or creating other disruptions. 
    The effects can mushroom. For example, members of other unions might refuse to cross the picket line, depriving the property or convention center of materials and people it needs to conduct a meeting.

Problems Solved
So, what is a planner to do? 
    Have an out. The contract with the venue or supplier should include a force majeure clause, stating the planner has the right to cancel the program if there is any kind of labor activity that will adversely impact the meeting at the property or elsewhere. The contract also might require that the venue under strike cover expenses to relocate the meeting to the satisfaction of the planner, unless the property can assure the planner that it is fully capable of handling the event.
    Stay informed. The contract should require the supplier to tell the planner about any anticipated labor problems and to let planners know when contract negotiations are scheduled and when current labor contracts end, if applicable. 
    One of our clients was told at the last minute that a walkout was scheduled for noon on the last day of the program. The planner rescheduled a noon luncheon for 11:30 a.m. and turned it into a buffet. The wait staff met its obligation to place all the food, then left the banquet room precisely at noon. Management was stuck bussing the tables. 
    Talk turkey. Planners can help themselves by meeting with the heads of local unions to discuss what mutually can be done, especially in an informational-picketing situation, to allow the meeting to go forward with minimal inconvenience. After all, if you wind up pulling the meeting, the only ones hurt are the very people the union wants to represent. 
    Security presence. Most major urban areas have specially designated police units to handle labor disputes, particularly when the situation is ugly and there is a potential for violence. If you fear physical disruption, the police and the venue’s security should be on hand to control the situation.