What You Need to Know About AV, Unions and Right-to-Work States

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Kip Cade, COO of AV-America, an AV and production company based in Orlando, Fla.

We asked an expert to help untangle what you need to know about the intersection of AV, unions and right-to-work states.

It’s not exactly a secret that working with a union house — a venue that requires the event organizer to use union workers to service its event — can be a bit complicated, and usually more expensive. So why can’t you just bring in your own production/AV company, which already knows your event’s intricacies? If your host destination is a right-to-work state, does that mean you can sidestep union rules?

Prevue asked Kip Cade, COO of AV-America, an AV and production company based in Orlando, Fla., to help untangle what can seem like a gordian knot of rules when it comes to working with unions — even in right-to-work states.

When Do You Have to Work with Unions?

If you are contracting with a union house, a.k.a., a venue that only hires AV and production staff who are members of a labor union, the union will have to play a role in your event. Yes, even if you bring in your own AV production company. But that doesn’t mean union employees have to do everything, says Cade.

For example, says Cade, while many small theaters in Orlando may be union houses, they may let your organization just contract with the union to, say, unload the trucks and manage some of the setups, then let your AV production company take over from there. “That would be more of a ‘union-friendly’ house, where the unions are more likely to work with you, as opposed to a straight union house, where you have to pay one tech to take a piece of equipment off the truck, another to take it to the room, another to set it up,” he says.

Some destinations — think Chicago and Las Vegas, for example — are known for having a lot of union houses. If you contract with a venue in a union-heavy area, chances are good you will be obligated to use union labor — but not necessarily exclusively. As is the case in some of those Orlando theaters, there may be some work that can be done by your own AV production company if they bring in their own equipment, though you may still have to pay one or two union member workers, to be “shadows” who are there to observe the production company’s staff, even if the union members aren’t actively working the event. This can add cost to your bottom line, says Cade, but some organizations who have the budget and really want to meet in a specific union venue may be willing to pay substantially more to do so.

Also, keep in mind that more than one union may be involved. While Teamsters and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) are the most common unions involved in event venues, you also could be working with a number of other trade unions. Always be sure to check the union-related rules of your host venue before you sign the contract to ensure you understand what your labor-related contractual obligations will be.

But you still may be able to meet there without having to deal with unions as even union-heavy locales do have non-union houses. “Some of the venues even in Chicago and Las Vegas never signed up with a union; others, particularly older venues, have been union forever and will say, ‘That’s just the way it’s always been done and that’s the way we’ll always do it.’ You just have to be careful to ask the question during your site selection process,” Cade says.

What About Right-to-Work States?

But wait, doesn’t choosing a locale in a right-to-work state mean that union rules won’t come into play? Not necessarily, says Cade. Being a right-to-work state only means that venues in that state aren’t required to hire union labor — but they still can. And they often do, especially in the case of convention centers, concert venues and some hotels.

First, it’s important to understand what a right-to-work state is. According to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), “A right-to-work state is a state that has enacted legislation that guarantees that no individual can be forced as a condition of employment to join or pay dues or fees to a labor union. States have the right to enact these laws under Section 14(b) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).” While it’s up to individuals to decide whether or not they want to join a union in a right-to-work state — employers can’t force anyone to join a union in these states — employees are still protected by any negotiated collective bargaining agreements unions have negotiated.

“A lot of companies will decline to do shows in certain cities because of the added cost of having to include union labor,” says Cade. “Florida is a right-to-work state, and that has something to do with why Orlando is such a big convention city — you get more bang for your buck, which is important for those who need to watch their budgets. If you’re in a right-to-work state, you can shop around instead of having to automatically pay the union rates.”

What About In-House AV?

One AV production company has negotiated to be the in-house AV and production company for many of the larger hotels and convention centers. As many planners could attest, the cost to use their services can be higher than it would if you brought in your own production company. This is because that company has negotiated to split the revenue with the venue, which means in turn means the in-house company must raise their rates accordingly to offset and it is a straight cost to you, says Cade — especially when it comes to Internet, WiFi and rigging.

Some event organizers simply accept the extra costs and fees simply to only have to write one check, he adds — you’re paying largely for this convenience, and that may be OK with your group. But many prefer the option to bring in their own supplier to avoid the higher cost of using the in-house company.

“To bring your own supplier into these venues, you need to take a hard stance as we are a service and not simply a commodity,” Cade says. “Relationships are important and often clients have contracts with their production companies or AV suppliers.” Either way, it’s likely a good idea to get some quotes from outside third-party companies to show the difference in rates between third parties and the in-house provider.

If the venue says that you absolutely have no choice but to use their in-house provider, it can’t hurt to ask to see the contract to see if it really does say the in-house provider has exclusive rights. Remember, it’s always an option to just walk away and use another venue (this is the best practice for negotiation) particularly if it’s important to your group to use your own AV and production company, Cade says.

Your AV Company Can Help

If you’re still confused, you’re not alone! That’s why it’s vital to work with an AV production company that understands unions and knows how to work with them. Bring your production company into conversations in the early planning stages so they can get you the best possible scenario in their dealings with the venue’s union team. Cade says, “We have worked successfully with many unions and often we can save you money with our knowledge and expertise.”

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