Labor union horror stories are a lot like belly buttons: Everybody's got one. And like those little indentations, they're getting a lot of exposure these days as the proliferation of convention centers heats up the competition for meetings and conventions. But should you let a city's bad union rep keep you from choosing that destination?

Definitely not, says Jean O'Donnell, director of conventions/meetings with Philadelphia-based American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, who co-presented a session on labor relations with Dan Steenstrup, assistant general manager, Freeman Decorating Co., Chicago; and Dan Vanderslice, senior vice president of audiovisual rental and staging company AVW-TELAV, Dallas, at the 2002 Professional Convention Management Association conference in January.

“While labor costs certainly need to be a site-selection criteria, if you decide not to go to a city because of its union reputation, you're not looking at the whole picture,” she explains. Though union problems that irritate exhibitors, service contractors, and meeting planners alike are by no means a thing of the past, she says that the situation is improving. And you have to factor in the fact that your attendees “will never even know what happens behind the scenes with the union. The truth is the city could draw an attendance high enough to pay for the difference because it is such a desirable location for other reasons,” says O'Donnell.

“There will always be hassles, whether it's labor relations or food and beverage,” she continues. “Even the best of planning doesn't always come off seamlessly. What we need to do is try to understand the situation better so we can minimize the hassles. We need to elevate the whole concept of union relationships.”

MM: When the topic of labor unions comes up, most people focus on how to avoid working with unions at all costs. Why do you take a different approach?

O'DONNELL: I've been in this business for about 18 years, and was on the exhibit side of medical societies for many years before that. I keep thinking about what we can do to make our industry stronger. Why do we keep banging our heads against the wall on union issues? The meetings industry is all about people learning from each other, and what is a union but people? Just doing things the same ways without looking to make improvements is a wasted experience for me. Now that we're living in challenging times, we have a chance for renewal. I say we take it.

MM: But isn't dealing with the unions better left to your service contractors?

O'DONNELL: I'm not suggesting that anyone cut out the service contractor — they order the labor calls, and we all know that they are the champions of any labor issues we might have — but there is a role for planning professionals to be proactive in bridging the gaps. Meeting managers don't necessarily see union relationships as something they need to be concerned about. But they should be: Labor affects your budget and your ability to get your convention open. We need to have our organized labor get everything in place before a large meeting or convention, yet we don't look at labor unions the same way we do our hotel partners, our audiovisual partners, and all the other entities that make the event happen. We need to work with unions to get across the message that we're with you, not against you.

MM: How can the meeting planner get involved without stepping on the contractors' toes?

O'DONNELL: I suggest that show organizers meet with the union business managers six months to a year prior to the meeting. The bureau, the facility manager, the decorator, the AV people — everyone who will be involved with labor should be at the meeting. I give them some information about our association's membership and purpose. Every group has a story about what their organization stands for, and when you share it, you develop a sense of community with the labor union so they don't feel they're just the hired laborers doing the pipe and drape. It gives them a higher stake in it.

I also like to have each union rep talk about what their union represents and what their jurisdiction is. Not in great detail, but just enough to get a sense of what's going on. Each union and each city is a little different, and if we understand each other better, we can correct some misperceptions and we can also head off potential issues.

Then I suggest you meet again immediately before the event to discuss any challenges you have, like tight turnaround times, so they realize you're doing more than just taking an order for laborers. Poor planning — like last-minute requests that pull people away from one area to another after labor calls have gone out and staging guides are set — can sometimes provoke the problem. There's more than one side to every story, and I think we can all do things a little better.

MM: You mentioned treating labor unions more like other meeting-related partners. Does that include following up with a post-con report of some kind? Is sending a letter afterward appropriate?

O'DONNELL: It's not just appropriate; it's appreciated. We often send letters to hotels and convention center staff, but we seldom extend that to the union's constituents. Yet without them, we couldn't get our conventions installed. Make it clear in your pre-con meeting that your intent is to send a letter to the appropriate union officials, and you want to be able to send lots of positive letters.

You want to be honest in these letters — don't paint an unrealistically rosy picture. In one city that will remain nameless, we had a labor union promise to do something for us that would have saved us money. Then they didn't do it, but still wanted a good letter! But I do think it's important to recognize that union laborers are people, and they appreciate a good word when they've done a good job.

And take it another step: If you see things didn't go well and there are things the city needs to do to get your business back, send a letter to the mayor, or the governor, or ask your service contractor who would be the appropriate person to send a letter to.

MM: Has the labor situation improved since you first started out?

O'DONNELL: There have been great strides in cities like New York and Chicago. We're talking a new level of professionalism here, as cities dramatically expand their centers and their union work force. It's not as if labor unions don't understand business — they want their laborers to work often and well. The city also has a big stake in it, too: It's investing money in these facilities, and no one wants the issue of labor unions to be a negative for a city. You need to keep spreading the word that things need to be done with a certain level of cooperation and understanding, and that costs need to be relatively reasonable.

We as meeting managers can help the trend continue by telling union leaders in cities that have challenges what we need — and by asking them what we can do to help facilitate the process. Service contractors will tell you what they think you need to know; it's up to you to tell them how much you want to learn. If you don't know anything about unions, how can you speak to issues when they come up? With some preventative measures, education, and understanding, you'll never find yourself with your back against the wall.

Your Action Plan

  • Increase your knowledge of how unions work and the part they play in meetings and expositions. It's more than just a decorator/exhibitor relationship.

  • Don't let your perceptions get in the way of reality. Each situation is different, and each provides an opportunity to make improvements, alliances, and ways to increase your effectiveness as a professional planner.

  • Build strong relationships with bureaus, decorators, AV contractors, hotels, facility staff, and convention service staff to understand their role in labor issues. Let them know what to expect, and come to an agreement on your various roles. Diplomacy and clear communication win when conflicts arise.

  • Understand your decorator's role in the meeting and in labor relations and contracts. Hold pre-convention meetings with key facility and decorator staff, and with union leaders. Make it clear your intent is to send letters to union officials after the meeting, and that you want to send positive letters.

  • Find out the labor rules in your destination and plan accordingly. For example: In some cities, if laborers have worked for five hours, they're due an hour's meal break or they will incur a meal penalty. You can avoid this by scheduling to take meal breaks into account. Or if you provide them with food, you'll just pay the normal hourly rate.

  • Know the status of union contracts. Show organizers should know the contract expiration date. If it expires during your event, the union may threaten a work stoppage as negotiation leverage. Your contractor should alert you if it looks like a problem might be brewing.

  • Most unions are state-regulated. Give positive and negative feedback and express concerns to key union officials and elected officials. The bureau can provide contact names and forward feedback to the right people.

  • Don't underestimate the power of your role and the economic impact of your organization.

Sources: Jean O'Donnell, director of conventions/meetings with Philadelphia-based American College of Physicians — American Society of Internal Medicine; Dan Vanderslice, senior vice president with AVW-TELAV in Dallas; and Dan Steenstrup, assistant general manager, Freeman Decorating Co., Chicago.

State of the Unions: Contractor Perspectives

“We have a joke in our industry: The only thing worse than organized labor is unorganized labor,” says Dan Steenstrup, assistant general manager, Freeman Decorating Co., Chicago. “Labor gets blamed for a lot of things, but having a trained work force is so important to us as contractors.” Dan Vanderslice, senior vice president with AVW-TELAV in Dallas, agrees: “Right-to-work states are not necessarily the best place to have a meeting. When you try to gather a talented crew, you may have to pull from other resources because it's just not available.”

So why do unions get such a bad rap? “If someone's had a terrible union experience, they tend to think all union experiences will be terrible,” says Vanderslice. “We like to talk about the things that go wrong, and we rarely discuss the things that go right.” Both contractors say that, while there's still room for improvement, unions are getting better.

“There's more sophistication within individual trades and the industry as a whole,” says Steenstrup. “There's more training, more governmental entity involvement, and a better forum for labor issues.” With shows using more technology, the good news is that it's usually not too hard to find tech-savvy laborers, says Vanderslice. But this has a flip side: “At a medical show we did in Boston, the workers knew how to interface computers with data projectors, but they didn't know how to work slide projectors.” Generally speaking, though, “The education and customer service levels have improved.”

There's also more competition than there used to be. “A lot of shows over 300,000 square feet used to only have two choices: Chicago and Las Vegas,” says Steenstrup.

Another change they've seen is a simplification of jurisdictional issues: “We used to have five unions involved in setting up one simple pipe-and-drape booth in some cities,” says Steenstrup. Now New York has halved its union presence, from four to two, and Chicago has combined the carpenter and decorator work forces. “I think the consolidation of jurisdictions will continue,” says Steenstrup. “It makes life easier for exhibitors, contractors, and show organizers, and cities that make our lives easier will get more business.”