Bad Blood

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

Two weeks before the NRA gathering, Watkins and the IBEW's business manager, Stephen Schoemehl, decided that if a plasma TV were addressed to the audiovisual company, the Projectionists would install the equipment. Otherwise, it's the IBEW's job.

But CVC staffers were far from assuaged by the apparent reconciliation. They allege that disputes like the NRA instance occur routinely, no matter what handshakes have taken place.

"Imagine if you're the customer, and the unions are fighting about this in front of you," says CVC president Ratcliffe. "You're saying to yourself, 'Why am I doing business here? If I go to Kansas City, I only deal with two unions. There won't be any fights, and my stuff will just get done."'

Each of the members of the three St. Louis unions in question currently specializes in one kind of work: rigging and staging, projection, sound. It's been that way for a hundred years.

But as part of her labor agreement, Ratcliffe wants America's Center to train every audiovisual staffer in all of the trades. That way one man instead of three (or ten instead of thirty, and so on) could tackle all of a client's audiovisual tasks. The costs and the quarreling would plummet, Ratcliffe says.

Her pact's other thrust is to combat "shadowing," which happens when America's Center customers bring their own audiovisual personnel and are forced to hire local laborers to hang around on a "standby" status, getting paid to do nothing.

According to the CVC, three IBEW workers and Projectionists must oversee ten meeting rooms. During main-stage productions in the Edward Jones Dome, one Stagehand typically shadows every non-union worker. The practice is unheard of in like-sized cities, although prevalent in Chicago and Philadelphia.

"How do you argue that to the customer?" asks Ratcliffe. "How do you say, 'Well, sorry, that's the way it is in St. Louis'?"

Contractors and event planners claim their salaried staffers can accomplish the work not only quicker and cheaper, but better, since they choreographed the lighting, graphics and sound in the first place.

"When we go to a city where we can't bring our own people, we have no idea what we're going to get," explains Stuart Danneman, national sales manager for Georgia-based Tech Rentals, an audiovisual contractor. "Unfortunately, their mindset is: 'If the show goes great, great. If the show goes bad, oh well, we still get paid.'

"Well, in our business we're only as good as our last show. I can do a show for XYZ Company and it'll go great in Atlanta, and great in Denver, and if I have a problem in St. Louis — that's what the client remembers."

Opines Bob Kelley, the former CVC commissioner: "I think it's all bullshit. I had situations where the CVC told me a show was so unhappy they would never come back, yet the union business manager had a letter from the show manager saying he wanted to thank them because his guys were so helpful and courteous."

If customers are shocked by invoices, it's the sales staff's fault, in the union leaders' opinion. "These salespeople are paid according to their productivity — how many sales they get," says Kelley. "I'm not saying they lie [to potential customers]. I'm saying sometimes they don't tell the whole truth."

Linn Vogt, owner of Pacific-based Klance Staging, an audiovisual labor broker, agrees: "I can't tell you how many times I'll get a call a month before a show to go over the requirements, and the customer will all of a sudden say, 'Wait a minute: This is a union building?'"

The brother locals have demanded the CVC turn over documents describing the purported thirty-one events America's Center lost in the last five years. But Ratcliffe says she has no plans to release any such papers.

"We have examples over the years of perhaps inappropriate [union] conversations with customers, so we're not going to subject our customers to that," she explains. "We're not going to put them in the middle, unless we wanted to kill the business forever."

Riverfront Times filed a Sunshine Law request for six years of exit surveys from groups who used the Center. To research the public documents, the CVC demanded a $7,500 down payment, a fee that media lawyers deemed unnecessary. RFT continues to try to obtain the exit surveys.

The CVC did identify some past customers willing to explain their disenchantment with St. Louis' audiovisual services. Interviews with the clients elicited fervent feelings against "shadowing" and work disputes.

The Solid Waste Association of North America forwarded Riverfront Times a related e-mail sent to Swank Audio Visuals after a 2003 meeting here:

"I am reviewing your invoice and I am shocked by the exorbitant pricing," the message reads. "Not only is your pricing on rentals very high, I am also not sure why we need to pay what appears to be double labor..... Compared to other centers, your bills are almost double what we have paid elsewhere for similar activity."

Swank Audio Visuals declined to comment for this story.

Pam Reisinger, meetings director for the American Association of Law Libraries, which met here in 2006, wrote in one exit survey obtained by Riverfront Times: "The contractors AALL hires are experienced and well seasoned professionals that have worked in most of the convention centers in the United States. It was unsettling to hear them discuss the 'absurdity' of some of the labor rules in St. Louis and their reluctance to have to work in that environment again."

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