Planners Share Pros and Cons of Working With Unions

June 1, 2018

Collective bargaining is a major component of the meetings, events and tradeshow industry. Those who are part of collective bargaining units—or unions—work in hotels, convention centers, restaurants and arenas. And in nearly every discussion about unions with industry colleagues, there is anger surrounding the many rules in working with them.

There are some planners and their employers or clients who seek out and will only work with those venues and vendors who have organized labor because those organizations want to ensure those with whom they work are paid and treated fairly and well.

There are others in our industry who speak only badly of unions that will only work with non-union (“right to work”) hotels and cities although they will fly on airplanes with pilots and flight attendants who are organized for collective bargaining.

In the related June 2018 Friday With Joan blog post, I provide more information about organized labor in hope of opening discussion within our industry about it.

In a number of industry forums, I asked for those interested in commenting on issues of labor unions and meetings to contact me. A few planners followed up on that offer.

I also reached out to UNITE HERE’s FairHotel Program to be referred to organizations that take part in the program, so that I could ask them questions about organized labor.

I am grateful to those who participated. If you would like to comment on this article or on something related to my blog post, please do so in the related comments section.

If you would prefer to comment anonymously, email me at or I will post your comments without your signature and any identifiers (other than perhaps “planner” or “supplier” or an identifier of your choice).

If the comments are only for my information, please state that in your email to me and the comments will not be published, but I’ll still make sure to read through them.

The following responses are those of the respondents, edited for clarity, and do not necessarily express my views or the views of Meetings Today or its publisher.

In the process of editing, if we have inadvertently changed the meaning of the responses, please forgive us and send me any corrections that need to be stated.

I have added some thoughts and questions following these responses so that instead of nodding in agreement or disagreement, you will consider the issues more deeply and engage in discussion here, in your workplaces and with our industry partners.

June 2018 Friday With Joan respondents include:

Keith Johnston (KJ), Managing Partner at i3 Events and author of the industry blog Plannerwire. Johnston works “with small- and medium-sized associations in their quest to produce amazing events and conferences.”

Industry Veteran (IV1) who self-described (and with which I concurred!) as an “incredibly good-looking, but humble future member of the Baseball Hall of Fame” with 23 years of hotel experience, who has been an independent event manager for the last 13 years.

Industry Veteran 2 (IV2) is a corporate meeting and event planner with 19 years of experience. Both of our Industry Veterans chose to go unnamed in their comments.

Q1. What are your experiences as a customer working with organized labor for meetings, events and tradeshows?

Answers to Question 1:

KJ: At various venues across the country we have had the opportunity to work with many of the unions that service the meetings and events industry.

Just this past February [2018] in Chicago we produced a 600-person association conference and worked with the Carpenters, Decorators, Electricians, Projectionists, Riggers, Stagehands, and Teamsters Unions.

IV1: I have occasionally had positive experiences working with unions, usually in cities where the union has a presence, but in which groups are not forced to work with the unions. Competition keeps the unions honest. It’s seldom you deal with the same customer service issues in a non-union city as when you are in a union city.

However, it is rare in a union city or building to have a great overall experience. I’ve encountered incompetence, laziness, and even hostility on more than one occasion.

IV2: I have been a customer over the last 10 years working with various labor unions across the US.  Most of my experiences have been in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC, with some experiences in Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

I have been a customer both for both tradeshows and meetings.

My experience [with unions] has been much more positive on the meetings and events side and rather than on the convention tradeshow side. The tradeshow convention center [union] workers were much more rigid to work with; I felt like I really had to struggle to get work done in a timely fashion.

On the hotel side, it was much easier.

Q2. Are you pro (for), con (against) or neutral about working with organized labor for meetings, conventions and tradeshows? … And why do you feel that way?

Answers to Question 2:

KJ: This is a cop-out answer: I am both pro and con.

On the “pro side, I love what unions represent. I love that people earn a living wage, and that they are treated fairly and with respect. At most of our events, the union labor is on time, on their game, and a pleasure to work with.

One “con” is [the way in which] many unions treat associations and planners. Because we are forced to use [organized labor] for many events, many planners get the impression that the unions don’t care about the event.

It is not unusual to come across union staff at venues who are dismissive, rude, and utterly lacking a sense of urgency when problems or issues arise. There is the impression that they don’t take ownership of the events that they are helping us to produce.

Sometimes, when an issue arises, some [union workers] go on a scheduled break rather than taking time to fix a problem and then heading out for a break.

Another “con” is the cost of using union labor ... but this may not be the union’s fault.

For example, when paying $150.00 an hour for a union person, I am sure that the individual is not making the full $150.00 per hour. There are people along the way that are getting a cut of that hourly wage and depending on how many [get a cut], it can get quite costly and sometimes beyond the means of many small associations.

That being said, the “pros” are enormous.

In any market where there is a strong union presence, you have a strong middle class and that is good for everyone, not just the meetings and events industry.

IV1: I have thought about this for several days.

The only “pro” I can come up with as a customer is knowing that the hotel staff I work with who are affiliated with or members of a union have some protections in place against being taken advantage of by the corporations they work for. Beyond that, there isn’t any real benefit that I can see to working with unions.

Overall I’m “con.”

Here's why I think that: Union practices/rules protect the union and the union employees, many times at the expense of and to the detriment of the customer.

I really believe that if unions were the provider of choice, if you knew that you would get the best, brightest and most diligent worker available, people would pay more and do it gladly, but the system doesn’t currently promote customer-focused values, so union workers are seldom, if ever, the best choice of labor in any market.

IV2: I am “pro from the perspective that unions protect and provide fair wages for workers.

The “cons” are from the frustrations when I see workers taking longer than needed to get jobs completed or requiring extra people to complete a job that should be able to be done by one person.

Further, I think some of the break rules, etc., are a little much.

Do people really need a 15-minute break every hour?

Q3. What are your best and your worst experiences working with a union serving a meeting or event in which you were involved?

Answers to Question 3:

KJ: Worst – A few years ago, we were doing a small video shoot during a conference. This required union labor. Although it was a one-person job, the union required two people.

Neither of them knew how to operate our equipment.

We had to operate the equipment and do all of the work while they sat, watched and got paid. This makes a planner want to flip out!

Best – Most interactions with the unions are good, just the way you want them to be. As a planner, I want things to go smoothly and run on schedule.

98% of the time that is exactly what I get.

Best – A union employee came to hook up a printer. All that was needed was to plug it in! The cost to do so was $60.00. This employee looked at me and said, “I am going to go for a walk; it’s amazing how some things get done when no one is looking.” He smiled and walked away.

He understood that although we had just spent thousands and thousands of dollars to set up and run our conference, this little $60 charge did not make sense.

IV1: Again, after plowing the fields of my memory to come up with one “best” experience related to working with a union, I can’t find one.

I’ve had great experiences with union workers, but in almost all cases, it wasn’t because of their union engagement, but rather their own personal work ethos. 

In the “worst” category, I once spent eight hours placing 34 signs in a building with union rules and personnel.

I was required to have a crew of five: one general services rep, two laborers, to carry the easels and signs, one carpenter who was required to place the easel and sign in the designated location, all under the watchful supervision of one crew chief. 

I’m guessing the volume of [negative] stories that are or could be told is an incredibly and disappointingly large number and substantiate most peoples’ issue(s) about working with unions.

IV2: Worst – I needed a banner hung at a hotel. I believe it should have been able to be done in no more than two hours. It however took six hours.

The worker seemed inexperienced.

Best – I have had union workers bend over backwards to help to ensure the meeting’s needs were met including one who helped repair a banner after noticing a ripped grommet and there was no charge which, no doubt under union rules, there could have been.

Q4. In what ways can planners and groups form better relationships with employees organized for collective bargaining who work in our industry?

How does the relationship begin and with whom?

Answers to Question 4:

KJ: 1. Be flexible. Rules are important but are they really set in stone?

Determine the needs and how to meet them reasonably based on expectations, rules and the realities of changes such as late meal deliveries when feeding union workers who have set times for meals. Planners and groups need to understand what unions are, why there are rules, and plan accordingly.

2. Communicate. I never see unions and planners getting together away from the event to talk. It would be immensely helpful for the parties if we had twice yearly meetings where we can all talk about the good, bad, and the ugly.

3. Understand the New Reality. We all need to face reality and understand that technology is changing the meetings and events industry forever. Unions need to understand what used to take four people can now be accomplished with one person, a MacBook and little knowledge.

Planners need to understand that what used to take a department of five can now be done with software and two people. Although this is bad for both groups, we cannot dwell. We can adapt, the faster the better, to create new opportunities for those that are now in a bad spot because technology is reducing the number of jobs.

IV1: It’s a chicken and egg scenario. I want to support organizations that are at the forefront of workers’ rights and who are structured to ensure that workers are adequately represented. I also require cost-effective customer service. How do meeting managers/organizers/planners start the process of working better with unions? Here are a couple of suggestions:

1. Ask questions. Union rules differ from location to location, venue to venue. Don’t assume you know those rules just because you’ve worked in union facilities before. Ensure the union members with whom you are dealing also know the rules. It will come as no surprise that many “rules” that are stated or understood as being in place are the result of a culture that is in place of both customers and union members.

2. Stop treating unions and in particular, their members as adversaries. Union members aren’t the enemy. Extending courtesies to all staff we work with go a long way to establishing a mutually-beneficial working relationship.

3. Ask to meet with the union representatives prior to an event to ensure they know you aren’t opposed to working with them. Ask them to help you make your event a success. Anything you can do to make the process a relational one versus just another transaction will go a long way to gaining the unions trust and cooperation.

4. Discuss the foundational premises that some have that unions are bad to work with. Collectively, many in our industry have bought into a narrative that says unions are terrible to work with. While unions have had their share of problems over the years, (and admittedly still do), we have to acknowledge that much of the bad feelings about unions has been generated by the corporate partners in all of this.

I still recollect attending a seminar while a manager during my hotel days where the company explored ways to identify union activity and how to suppress it.

It does take place despite anyone’s protestation otherwise.

One of the key points was that, as a company, we take great care of our employees and therefore they don’t need union representation. Given what I’ve experienced and seen in the years hence, I’m increasingly convinced that most for-profit entities do only as much as they barely have to do to keep their employment rosters full and that a highly functional, effective union would been a boon to hotel workers everywhere.

5. Do not believe in its entirety the argument that unions drive up employment costs. Are they a factor? Perhaps. But to position unions as the sole reason your costs are higher is a strawman positioned to deflect your attention from the profit-driven need to make ever increasing profits year-over-year.

IV2: The relationship begins in the beginning.

1. Treat each other with respect.

2. Set expectations in advance, including timelines with deadlines on work being completed.

3. Treat everyone as members of the team and work together for the success of the event. This helps workers understand and feel included and often motivates them.

Joan’s Comments and Questions for Discussion:

Consider all those with whom you have worked or do work in any capacity in hospitality.

Of those, what percentage have you thought to be competent? Willing to take the extra step to be of service?

(This applies to you too industry suppliers—consider the planners and other staff and volunteers with whom you’ve worked in their capacity of planning and executing meetings, events and tradeshows).

Of the “cons” or “worsts” noted here or by you, are there people, regardless of status—that is, union or non-union employee, or volunteer—who take advantage of work time? How about breaks? Are there those whose work ethic [think of the comments about the Millennial generation!] is not like yours and therefore, you think are lazy? Are there cultural or regional differences that dictate how we communicate and respond?

How do rules or laws set by employers, municipalities or countries about work hours and breaks impact your thinking about how individuals work? Are you or people with whom you work at their peak if they have worked long hours without sufficient breaks or meals? 

If you’ve ever worked with Interpreters of American Sign Language, you know that they require two people for each job, have specific conditions and breaks that are required and can only work certain hours. Not members of unions, they are members of professional associations that require these conditions in order for the Interpreters to be effective. Oddly, I’ve seen complaints against these too.

If meeting planners or convention services managers had the ability—no, the rights—to have conditions placed on the workload and timing and breaks, wouldn’t we want that too?

If people are paid a living wage, receive good benefits and are appreciated by customers and employers, are they more apt to perform their jobs well? Go the “extra mile” in service? If people do fear losing their jobs to outsourcing or technology, are they more or less apt to focus and perform well?

Does your group, or do you, start the relationship with unions or labor in general on a positive note, or are there chips on shoulders because of past experiences?

In what ways can you change how to start the relationships for the mutual benefit of all—the meeting/event, the individuals with whom you work, your employer or client, and you?

Do you think that those who plan meetings might be better off if we had collective bargaining? Let me know your thoughts on any and all of these in comments below.

Related Reading From the June 2018 Edition of Friday With Joan

Click here to view additional content in the 06.01.18 Friday With Joan newsletter.

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About the author
Joan Eisenstodt | Contributing Blogger, Friday With Joan Author and Industry Expert

Joan Eisenstodt, a meetings entrepreneur since 1981, has been honored by multiple hospitality and meetings organizations for her educational work in and for the industry. Her passion for helping bring people together meaningfully, safely and ethically is the focus of her writing and teaching.