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So… Unions… Love ’em Or Hate ’em?

BY GEOFF LISSAMAN

 

Personally I’m not such a fan and recent experiences just seem to reinforce that. But before I tell the story I guess some background is needed.

 

It has been close to 20 years that I’ve been living/working in the USA.  I don’t think I say “Eh?” much anymore and have learned to pronounce “about” differently but I still can’t bring myself to use “y’all” in a sentence.  To be honest just typing it bugs me.  As I’m still riding the high of winning both Hockey Golds at the Olympics, I guess I’ll let that slide this time.  It seems you can take the Canadian out of Canada but I’ll always be more comfortable arming bears then bearing arms. Sorry.

 

So still being Canadian at the core, and thus a socialist by American standards, you’d think I’d be all for trade unions.  I’m a bit of a history buff so I know when and why they came into being.  I was not around in the late 1800s but I did watch them struggle with the automotive and steel industries in the 70s and 80s, for better or for worse.  The rise and fall of the global influence of unions aside, certainly in our industry they still have a presence.

 

In my travels I’ve certainly hired and worked with lots of union and non-union people.  Like all people, some I liked working with, some less so.  Anyone that travels around the country doing shows, be they music shows or corporate events and trade shows, knows that all buildings “house” labour, riggers, A/V, electric, etc. etc. are not created equally.  I can think of a couple places where the union guys are rock stars, generally however my experience is that union crews are less efficient and more expensive then non union ones.

 

A conversation I once had with a union steward:

 

Steward:  Geoff you know we have a 15 min break at 10am right?

Geoff:  Yes, it’s 9:30 now but we should be fine for a 15 at 10.

Steward:  Well we take our break at our cars, and they make us park 10 min away so they need to leave at 950.

Geoff:  Uuuuuuuummmmmm.  No.

 

And of course things go south from there because my day did not really count on 10 min of travel time before and after each break.

 

I mean I’m all for breaks.  I take them. I don’t mind paying overtime when it is called for, etc. etc. I’m a fan of safety, for myself, my crews, my clients. What I don’t like is feeling like I’m being taken advantage of and my experience with unions is it often feels like they are trying to take advantage of either me or my client.

 

What I’m really really not a fan of is being forced to hire people I don’t want or need, which is what happened this past week and thus set this blog in motion.

 

So the story ….

 

Large German company decides to come to a Las Vegas trade show.  They use the same production company for all their shows/events worldwide.  This production company has both US and German offices and thus while some of the gear/crew are shipped from Germany, some gear is also pulled from their US stock and I’m hired on to make things sound nice.  I don’t speak German but my contacts there speak enough English that we all seem to be on the same page. Easy, right?

 

First day I’m on the job site helping set up PA.  Local Union rep comes by and tells Germans that I can’t work because I’m not union.  Germans explain to Union Rep that they were told by show organizers that because I’m (at least for the show) an employee of the German production company that was ok.  Rep leaves in a huff.

 

Second set up day, I’m running sound for the rehearsals, couple of stagehands (also directly hired by the Germans) are dressing cables.  Union Rep shows up and says that he checked and it does not matter who owns the gear, who was hired for what by who, or what they have been told, it is a union show and the non-union people they hired can’t set up or run the gear.  Germans explain that I’m mixing the show no matter what, they don’t really care who dresses cables as long as it gets done right.  After much huffing and puffing it is agreed that the German-hired stagehands will keep working until their union replacements arrive, the union will also send a “shadow” for me.

 

The “replacements” arrive several hours later and are a disaster.  They arrive with an attitude only eclipsed by their lack of personal hygiene.   Needless to say neither set of Germans, those from the production company or those from the company spending millions on the event are now thrilled. They spend most of their time explaining to the clients that while they can run and dress cables, they can’t push and stack dead cases because that would be a different union.  When asked to plug in the 2 small lights pointing at a sign they refused claiming they were not hired as electricians. I mean I’m an audio guy, all I know about lights is the moving ones seem to need to go up and down several times before they all work but … really? You need an electrician to plug a light into the wall?

 

When I asked one of my new union friends how long something was going to take I was told to relax, “this is the biggest booth here, these guys have lots of money and we need to take some of it.”  No. Seriously. He said that to me.  Really.  I’m still kind of in shock.

 

My shadow is a 20-something kid who seemed nice enough.  He admits to me that he has very little audio experience because no one ever trains them on anything.  He then proceeds to wander off and instead of following me around, spends his time on the phone calling infractions in to the union rep.  When asked about it he said “Well if you don’t watch them they will keep trying to get away with stuff”.  By “get away with stuff” he seemed to be referring to actually touching anything that they owned and had shipped here from Germany for the show.

 

The events part of the show I did went well, both the people from the production company and their clients seemed very happy and we parted after talking about what we could do to make the next one even better.  Good show, another client that will call back.  Win. Win.

 

As I’m leaving I’m asked if I could take a peek at the audio they had in the little kiosk thing.  It’s just a little set up with one wireless mic, an iPad to play music, and couple Meyer UPAs.  The production company is leaving it there for the next few days and the client will just run it themselves for the rest of the trade show.  I show them how to turn it on/off.  Make sure it sounds fine and will not feedback.  Thank everyone again and walk to my car … as the Union rep is arguing with the client that the girl running the kiosk will need a shadow because she is not a union audio operator…

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