Guide to Trade Show Union Labor

March 31st, 2015 by Interex Exhibits



Union labor is a staple at trade shows—as an exhibitor, it’s important to be aware of some union basics as well as specifics for each show.

Unions provide skilled temporary laborers at trade shows to perform a variety of tasks. Contracts exist that determine which labor unions are present at each show, and depending on which show you’re exhibiting at, the unions and contract terms will vary. The presence of union labor means that you, the exhibitor, can’t simply perform any task you like during setup and teardown. In fact, depending on the contracts in place, you may be able to perform very little heavy lifting.

On the show floor, union labor can be used by the show organizer’s general services contractor (GSC) or exhibitor appointed contractors (EAC) to perform tasks that fall within a union’s jurisdiction. Union stewards will also be present to oversee the utilization of labor. Stewards are elected officials that, among other things, ensure that union labor is being used to perform duties as specified.

What does this mean for you, practically? Certainly if you could do something yourself, like lay down carpet or plug in an extension cord, it would save you the cost of having a laborer perform that task. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

There is no static list, but tasks that can typically be done by laborers include drayage, install and dismantle (I&D), signage, lighting, electrical, AV, flooring, heating and air and pipe and drape. Remember that unions and tasks vary widely depending on state, city and/or venue. For example, the Teamsters are heavily utilized in big convention cities like Chicago, while the Carpenters Union is used more prominently in Southern Californian cities such as San Diego.

As you can see, there are many tasks that laborers could have jurisdiction over. What happens if you ignore jurisdiction or simply aren’t aware? If you perform a task earmarked for a union laborer—even something as simple as hanging up a small sign—you could end up having to pay for the labor that task would’ve required anyway.

To protect yourself, make sure to find out the rules in advance and determine who has jurisdiction over what. Start by checking with the show organizer or looking at a provided event services manual. Otherwise, the show’s operations manager should be able to point you in the right direction.

Show organizers work with union leaders to come up with specific rules and guidelines for union labor. For example, your company might be able to perform certain tasks but with a stipulation that only full-time employees can handle it. For example, at the Colorado Convention Center, full-time employees can install and dismantle their own exhibit, but only if it can be done in less than an hour.

Union labor and its many nuanced rules can certainly be confusing, but the key piece of advice here is to do your homework in advance so you have a clear understanding of who can and can’t do what.

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