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.
A 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.
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.
Although 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.
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.
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.
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.
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