"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. Some cities have the great fortune of having a labor pool of 500 dedicated people who will do aday and night." 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 tend to 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. Actually, some of them had never seen one before." 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. It’s not an easy process, but it is an increasingly important one."