Bad Blood

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

The Teamsters would not endorse the accord, however, nor would the Decorators, and in 1997 negotiations collapsed.

The unions were nonetheless very giving, recalls Kelley.

"When I first got there," he says, "nobody carried anything in the building unless they were a Teamster. Then the CVC started having a lot of mom-and-pop shows, with exhibitors who make crucifixes, or picnic tables that they bring in their own truck. Or you have a guy who sells locks, and he carries $100,000 of them in a suitcase. It used to be that he had to bring the suitcase to the dock and the Teamster had to carry it in. Well, the customers finally said, 'Hey, that's nonsense.' So we made the rule if you can carry it inside in a 'suitcase,' you can carry it in."

But clients always wanted more concessions, Kelley adds. "The next thing you know, a guy has a damn golf bag that he wants to call a 'suitcase.' Everybody pushes the limits."

Convention center unions are no different than other organized labor groups: sluggish to relinquish responsibilities for fear that their services eventually won't be required, explains Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, a Dallas-based nonprofit.

The technology revolution only heightened the rank-and-file's fears. As Bob Kelley explains, "You can do things today with a laptop that it used to take ten men and four truckloads full of stuff to do. The bottom line is, these groups are fighting for their survival."

But even after concessions, costs can balloon if unions insist on other conditions, such as minimum-hour requirements, the CEIR's Ducate points out. Perhaps more than anything, he says, exhibitors hate paying a union electrician the requisite four-hour rate to plug a computer into an outlet. That's been a longtime beef in St. Louis, where the IBEW plugs in and networks all PCs.

"We're a high-tech company with a lot of computers and software," complains Ohio-based Stephen Holder, organizer of the Rockwell Automation show held here in 1994 and 1998. "Does an electrician in St. Louis know how to set up my computer? I'm sort of anxious about that. And it was their job to unbox the stuff, too. I said, 'Time out! I have over 750 computers, and you guys have to take them out of the box and set them up, when my guys can do it in half the time?' In other cities, if it's your box you unpack it yourself."

In 2004, six years after Rockwell's second show, the CVC finally persuaded the IBEW to let exhibitors unpack and repack their PCs. In exchange, the CVC promised to pay the union if it caught any exhibitors trying to connect their own computers. (Holder's show returned in 2005. "It was better," he says. "But St. Louis can always improve.")

Other significant jurisdictional changes occurred in 2004. The Teamsters said exhibitors could ferry materials via dollies. And the Decorators let exhibitors with booths measuring less than 300 square feet assemble their own spaces — without using power tools.

Around the same time, America's Center took the rare step of naming longtime employee Melanie Donnelly its official labor relations manager.

A PR blitz followed, with the CVC hoping to lure back lost business. Today, if you Google "labor relations and convention centers," St. Louis appears first.

But have the changes resulted in more customers — and more work for the unions? "We're still waiting," says the Decorators' Condellire.

It's a Thursday in early April, the day before the colossal National Rifle Association convention opens at America's Center, and workers from the six unions are scurrying about, transforming the Center into a mammoth gun shop. At 64,562 attendees, the gathering will be both an NRA and a city record-breaker.

Over in a small office in St. Louis' Southampton neighborhood, meanwhile, where a dozen still-in-working-order 1920s movie projectors line the windowsill, IATSE Local 143's business manager Bill Watkins explains the group's genesis in St. Louis movie theaters. The Local's membership peaked in 1948 at nearly 300, but today numbers just 34.

Still, Local 143 maintains a six-decades-old contract with St. Louis-based Swank Audio Visuals, a primary contractor at America's Center. The Projectionists man the Center's meeting rooms, setting up screens and PowerPoint presentations and monitoring the workshops. "Our guys are coat-and-tie, or business-casual, so your usual description of 'union guy' is thrown out the window," says Watkins. "Now the Center would like to disrupt the way we've been doing things there for 30 years."

A little after 11 a.m., one of Watkins' Projectionists telephones from the NRA setup. An argument has ensued between Local 143 and another union over a plasma television.

"Well, OK, first of all, let's be nice, let's be friends about it. This is one of those gray areas. Who did it come to as freight?" Watkins asks his member.

"OK," he goes on. "It's Swank's and 143 has the contract with Swank, so we do it. OK? Talk to you later."

Plasma televisions are popular tradeshow features these days — and a sticking point for the Projectionists and IBEW. Watkins' group considers plasmas a second-generation projector — a piece of equipment traditionally in 143's purview. But IBEW considers plasmas a second-generation television — its responsibility.

« Previous Page
Next Page »