Trade Show Union Rules You Need to Know

Working with a trade show labor union can be confusing, expensive, and exhausting. Not only is there a huge list of very specific rules that...
Harriet Daniels
December 17, 2019
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Working with a trade show labor union can be confusing, expensive, and exhausting. Not only is there a huge list of very specific rules that must be strictly followed, but those rules can vary wildly depending on the state, city, and even the venue. The same trade show hosted at the same venue might even have different trade show union rules year over year! To make matters even worse, most organizers require you to sign a contract before you can secure your booth spot. So, how can you manage all these restrictions and make the most out of your trade show experience? 

Trade show union rules aren’t as difficult to understand as they seem. Most of the setup is left to union workers, such as moving freight, decorating, I&D, rigging, carpentry, carpeting, electrical work, plumbing, and audiovisual setup. However, if you ask the show management, there might be small jobs that you can do to try to cut labor costs. 

What is a Labor Union?

What is a Labor UnionA labor union is a type of membership program for tradespeople and laborers. By paying a membership fee to be part of the union, union members are provided with representation in contract negotiations to ensure that they are paid fairly, given appropriate benefits, good hours, and safe working conditions on all jobs that they are contracted for through the union. The union can also provide educational materials, vacation plans, and insurance. 

In 23 U.S. states, laborers are required to work under a union. The other 27 states, however, are considered “right-to-work” states, in which working with a union is voluntary.

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What do Labor Unions Have to do with Trade Shows?

Trade show organizers establish contracts with labor unions in order to set up the showroom and all the booths. Although it can be a pain for exhibitors, utilizing a labor union is a good way for the organizer to keep track of all the work that is being done and ensure that it is done according to all appropriate safety regulations. 

Depending on whether you are in a right-to-work state or not, you could have different experiences with setting up at a trade show. Not all trade shows have union contracts either. However, regardless of the state you are in, you definitely should not try to circumvent the trade show union rules. If you are found breaking the rules, you may get fined the amount it would cost to pay the laborers anyway, and you may even be asked to leave.

Trade Show Labor Union Rules

Trade Show Labor Union RulesAlthough the rules and regulations vary depending on the venue, there are a few jobs that are consistently left to professional laborers. Although this list might not be correct for every single trade show, here are a few of the jobs that are almost always left to union labor.


  • Moving freight: This type of work usually consists of lifting heavy objects, unloading trucks, and operating forklifts.
  • Decorating: Although not a concern of the exhibitor, a local union is often employed to decorate the entire convention center.
  • Installation and Dismantle (I&D): I&D work involves setting up and tearing down the booth itself. Sometimes, exhibitors are allowed to help with this part, but it depends on the city, venue, and size of the booth.


    • Rigging: This work involves moving freight off pallets and out of crates, and position large equipment in booths. Riggers hang signs as well, if the signs require using a ladder to put up.
    • Carpentry: Sometimes booths or halls require carpentry work, such as assembling furniture and displays, or even a stage. Sometimes, a carpenter is needed just to drill a hole.
    • Carpeting: During a trade show, a carpet is laid down on top of the convention center’s floors to protect them. This is often left to either a carpenter’s or decorator’s union, but a specialized carpeting union can be hired as well.
    • Electrical: Electrical cables for a show are set up underneath the trade show carpet to hide them from view, and to prevent anyone from tripping over them. 
    • Plumbing: When a booth deals with water, sewage, gas, refrigeration, or ventilation, that falls under the jurisdiction of a plumbing union.


  • Theater: This involves setting up all audiovisual equipment, adjusting lighting for shows, setting up microphones, adding sound effects, and manipulating stage props.


When setting up at a trade show, you should absolutely not attempt to do any of the above jobs by yourself. Even though union labor can often be expensive, especially if you have to pay double time for early setup, it is not worth getting in trouble with the venue owner and potentially getting fined or kicked out.

Union stewards patrol the halls of the convention center, on the lookout for anyone that could be breaking the rules. If you have any questions, take them up with the trade show management. Do not assume that you can use ignorance of the rules as an excuse for breaking them.

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What Can You Do?

If you’ve ever gotten busted at a trade show for something simple, like plugging in a power cord, then you’re probably pretty frustrated with how nit-picky the union stewards are. Union labor is expensive, after all. Thankfully, there are some tasks that you can usually get away with doing yourself. 

As always, talk to your specific trade show organizers before trying any of the below tasks, but any full-time employee for your exhibiting company should be able to do some basic setup and maintenance. 


  • The Common Exception Rule: If your booth is smaller than 10’ by 10’, does not require any tools, and can be assembled in less than 30 minutes, then you should be allowed to set it up yourself.
  • Hand carry freight: If you have small boxes that you can carry without the assistance of a dolly or wheeled cart, then most places will allow you to bring that in yourself.
  • Basic cabling: Most shows will allow you to plug in basic 110V cables and lights, so long as the cables are left above the trade show carpet, and are not unsightly. 
  • Vacuuming: In most cases, a request to have someone vacuum up a small section of your booth will be dismissed. Most places won’t think much about you bringing your own vacuum and tidying up any dust and debris that might have fallen into your booth during setup.
  • Setting up equipment: chances are you will be permitted to set up your own company’s equipment, such as computers, printers, and any company products that you will be displaying or using.
  • Hanging signs: As long as the signs do not require a ladder or stool to put up, you can set them up yourself.
  • Supervise: If nothing else, you will be allowed to supervise the union workers putting your booth together, and you maintain the right to stop them if they are mishandling your materials or doing something you do not like to your booth. 


Working with a union can be frustrating, but just try to be patient, and ask questions about what you will and won’t be allowed to do. Organizers and unions aren’t always upfront about the things that you can do yourself since they make more money if you use the union labor. And remember, it is much better to ask for permission than forgiveness in this case.

Trade Show Shipping with R+L Global Logistics

While you’re getting ready for your show and preparing to deal with all the trade show union rules, let us take some of the stress off your shoulders. With our trade show shipping services, we can make storage, shipping, uncrating, recrating, and show-to-show shipping a breeze! Our experienced team of experts is available to chat 24/7 and can offer unmatched customer service and flexible solutions to meet your unique needs. In addition to real-time freight visibility for the entire trip, we can get your booth delivered to you exactly when you need it, no excuses. Our 99.5% on-time delivery record speaks for itself. 

Contact us today to request your free trade show shipping quote!

Need help shipping your trade show booth and materials? Fill out a short form or give us a call and one of our trade show specialists will answer your questions.

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