Your Guide to Union Labor for Installation and Dismantle of Your Trade Show Booth
Different convention centers across the U.S. have different labor rules, which can be confusing for the trade show participators to interpret.
The rules at one facility might differ a lot in another, which makes it difficult for the participators to be within the rules everywhere. Moreover, labor laws might change within any given year for the same show. The one thing that stays common between all these is that the labor laws might change to some degree, especially if the venue of the show changes.
In such cases it becomes extremely difficult for participators to make sure that their trade show exhibit designs might work for different shows. It also means that managing their trade show booth rental’s I&D becomes more tedious.
One of the keys to smooth installation and dismantle of your trade show booth is to understand how unions operate. We structured this guide like an FAQ to answer the most common questions we receive about labor workers and unions. Feel free to skip to the various sections depending on the information you are looking for.
Read thoroughly, this guide should leave you feeling well prepared to deal with and order labor for your next trade show.
What is a Labor Union?
A very basic definition of a labor union (also called a worker’s union or trade union) is an organized group of workers who unite to further collective interests such as wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions for a specific industry. Most every union has a yearly due to be a member.
For the trade show industry, labor unions supply workers who are experts in different aspects of trade show services. A show’s general service contractor (GSC) and exhibitor appointed contractors (EACs) will “call” for the number of union laborers they need to provide the services required for their clients.
It is entirely possible for a union laborer to be a full-time employee of either type of contractor or even float from one to the other, depending on who has work for them.
What is Union Jurisdiction?
You can find unions nationwide, regionally, or specific to one city. Each union claims a jurisdiction, which essentially says only they can perform a duty in their specific area. Unions will elect union stewards to help enforce jurisdiction.
At a trade show, if an exhibitor breaches the contract and performs a duty that should be done by a union laborer, the steward will ensure that the exhibitor pays for the labor anyways. Similarly, if a laborer performs duty in a union’s jurisdiction that is not his own, the two unions will settle the dispute.
Since there are so many unions and local contracts, it is difficult to know who can do what and where. To get a clear view of the unions represented at the show you are exhibiting at, call show management’s operations department.
What Type of Work Do Union Laborers Do?
Here is a general list of union laborers for the trade show industry and a short description of the work they perform. Show management should be able to offer you a list that is specific to your show venue.
Audiovisual: setting up screens, microphones, sound, lighting.
Carpenters: uncrating and re-crating, installation, and dismantle (I&D). Might also be involved with carpet, pads, and tile.
Carpet layers: padding, protective coverings, other floor surfaces.
Decorators: I&D, dressings, pipe and draping, skirting, signs, banners, and flags.
Electricians: electrical connections, installation, and removal of electrical wiring, hookups, panels, signs, tv/monitor/video, and more.
Plumbers: installation and dismantle of plumbing for air, water, waste, drainage, gas, tanks, and venting.
Porters: sweeping, cleaning, dusting, trash.
Riggers: crating, skidding, positioning, and leveling. Might also be involved with hanging signs, lighting, heavy construction, and more.
Stagehands: programmable theatrical lighting, light dimming, laser light, video walls, special effects, and more.
Teamsters: freight unloading and reloading, drayage. Might also be involved with I&D, hanging signs, and decorating.
Union stewards: onsite union officials who oversee their union’s work at a facility, violations, resolve disputes.
How is a Union Organized?
Put simply, union members are organized by experience level. Each member is assigned a title of lead, journeyman, apprentice, or day laborer.
Lead: the most experienced person on the crew, is generally paid the highest labor rate, plus a small incentive. The lead will be your main liaison for all I&D issues.
Journeyman (or “A” level): served as an apprentice in a trade or craft for a specific period of time – which varies greatly by union and city.
Apprentices (or “B” level): in the process of learning a trade by a combination of classroom and on-the-job training.
Day laborers(or “C” level): not members of the union and are hired via a temp agency, or off the street. They work by the day or hour and do not receive benefits.
To keep things straightforward, exhibitors are charged a flat rate for all levels of labor. However, each level of labor is structured based on experience level, contract stipulations, and benefits packages. The show’s general services contractor (GSC) or an exhibitor-appointed contractor (EAC) hire and pay the union workers for a show.
What Are You Allowed to do as an Exhibitor?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not clear cut and will vary from show to show. Your best bet is to look at the labor section of your exhibitor services manual. This section will detail which unions you will encounter at the show and the control they have over various jobs.
The information you find will mostly be about the union’s jurisdiction and what you may not do. If there is no information on what you can do, we recommend reaching out to show management’s operations manager.
Why is the Cost of Labor So High?
Being charged $100 an hour (or more) for labor may seem like a lot. After all, union laborers are “blue-collar” workers with an income ranging from $40k-$50k. Why is the cost so high? Only about 25% of what you are being charged goes to covering the worker’s hourly rate.
Is the remaining 75% pure profit for the company? Not exactly. It is used to cover several extraneous payroll expenses and costs such as unemployment, taxes, insurance, social security, vacation, leave, education, bonuses, incentives, and more.
It turns out that the $100 an hour for trade show labor ends up being in line with many other service industries that rely on labor rates for revenues. The rates charged seem high, but they help cover additional costs and allow for a small profit to be made.
We hope this guide to labor unions was helpful to you as a member of the trade show community. If you are an exhibitor, we are curious about what your experiences have been like working with union workers to install and dismantle your trade show booth. Please let the community know in the comments below.