Bad Blood

Ever hear the one about the unions and the convention bureau?

"The unions are killing us."

The statement is uttered at the city's tourism bureau, bandied about in business circles, muttered in political corridors. It's a catch-all phrase, explaining St. Louis' hemorrhaging convention business.

Now, after years of tenuous labor relations, the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission — the public agency responsible for infusing some $2 billion a year into the area's economy — has taken up arms against three unions that staff events at America's Center.

At issue: teleprompters, tape recorders, microphones and televisions.

The offensive began March 8, when CVC president Kathleen "Kitty" Ratcliffe circulated an advisory from ex-St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, chairman of the CVC's board of directors.

"America's Center is a building that holds few secrets from the people who work here," Dierdorf's memo begins. "So, you probably already know that the Convention & Visitors Commission has asked Kitty, Bruce and their staffs to begin a conversation with representatives of the 100 or so employees who regularly accept assignments involving audiovisual equipment at America's Center."

Under fire are the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 6 (Stagehands), the IATSE Local 143 (Projectionists) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1.

The CVC claims that it's tired of being held hostage by outdated and byzantine union work rules that jack up convention prices in St. Louis.

Dierdorf concludes: "I believe that it is time to face up to the issues that the 156 full-time and hundreds of part-time employees in this building (and most event planners and rival facility managers) know are our biggest competitive challenge."

The so-called conversation between the union business managers and CVC officials began cordially enough over iced teas at Cardwell's at the Plaza the following afternoon.

It was only later, after perusing a twelve-page position paper delivered by Dierdorf, that the labor leaders realized they were being thrust into the biggest bargaining battle ever waged by the CVC.

According to the position paper, a copy of which was obtained by Riverfront Times, the CVC wants America's Center (which the CVC operates) to become the employer of all audiovisual personnel — a middleman between conventions contractors and the unions.

The move would put the kibosh on the 30-year practice in which contractors strike their own labor agreements with the locals. According to the CVC, that custom has cost the region staggering sums.

"In the last 5 years, at an absolute minimum, America's Center lost 31 major Events because of either Customer problems with the AV Locals or because of the AV Locals' reputation in the convention community," the tourism bureau's position paper states.

"America's Center estimates conservatively that these events would have generated approximately $132 million for the local economy, including 443,250 hotel room nights. It is not difficult to imagine that America's Center lost an equal number of Events because of its reputation for labor difficulties about which it is not even aware."

But union business managers believe they're a red herring for shoddy salesmanship and bush-league attractions.

"Five years' worth of events," seethes Jack Beckman of IATSE Local 6 (Stagehands). "I may have a reputation as a hothead, but I am fair. For them to tell me we lost these shows because of audiovisual — I swear on my father's grave, nobody ever told us about it until now."

"It is unfathomable!" echoes William Watkins, with the Projectionists. "I think the CVC should think for a minute about the fact that St. Louis is known for the highest crime rate in the country, it has no direct flights, there are very few restaurants where meeting planners can eat, the dome floor is covered with turf six months of the year and can't be moved for conventions, and there's no retail downtown.

"We talk to everybody that comes in and out of there. You know what they say about St. Louis? 'There's no shopping!'"

Kitty Ratcliffe is the only CVC staffer authorized to discuss the current negotiations. She says, "This is a problem that has existed here for a very long time. And everybody in the industry knows it."

Kitty Ratcliffe took the helm of the CVC in May 2006. Her résumé reveals experience at both right-to-work (New Orleans) and unionized (Baltimore) convention bureaus. No stranger to St. Louis, the 49-year-old Chicago native cut her teeth as a CVC sales rep here in the late 1980s.

Ratcliffe's return to the St. Louis convention center coincides with its most sizzling sales pitch to date: 502,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 1,083-room "headquarter hotel" — the Renaissance Grand & Suites — an improving cityscape and enhanced entertainment options, including Ballpark Village, and a revitalized St. Louis Centre on the horizon.

It's a trying time in the industry, however. In the early 1990s, medium and large cities in many states began laying out billions of dollars to build or expand their exhibit halls. Then came the events of 9/11. Tighter bottom lines ever since have left event planners with far less money to spend on meetings and trade shows.

Still, St. Louis should be poised to thrive in this crowded marketplace, say veterans of the trade. The Gateway to the West may lack the attractions of a Las Vegas or an Orlando. Our summer and winter weather can be off-putting. But — like other Midwestern cities — St. Louis is a cheaper venue than a San Francisco or a New Orleans and, as a result, a magnet for frugal government and religious organizations, or for corporate and professional meeting-planners out to save a buck.

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