Union Battlegrounds: Keeping A Load In Safe & On Time
Recently, I returned from doing a show at a large union venue in Chicago. I know that a lot of people have worked in venues around the US that are run by IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). I am sure the experiences are both positive and negative. Some cities are better than others. But what had recently changed at this venue in Chicago was the addition of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to any outside venue hirer for some portions of the labor.
The usual experience of working with IATSE – regardless of the quality of your experience – consists of workers that are familiar with all of the temporary aspects of working in entertainment and events. They are fully aware of the time constraints. They are knowledgeable of what needs to happen in terms of each department ie video, lighting, audio, rigging etc. They are aware of the rules of who needs to do what, and in my experience, the union leads help to ensure that they do get the job done on time, correctly and safely.
In this particular venue, the newly imposed rules mean that IATSE can only install the equipment in the main presentation room. In our larger general session room, we got off to a regular union load in: unload the trucks, push the cases, unpack, layout the truss, rig motors, video, lighting, audio etc with all of the appropriately skilled support for our very specific industry.
Then came day two. We loaded in our smaller general session room with primarily IBEW workers. They even rigged the truss & motors. This seemed as though it was only the 2nd time they had ever done this. That being said, they did manage to do a relatively decent job in the amount of time with the PA and power runs, potentially you could even count lighting. We were able to use IATSE technicians for video so not too many issues there. But rigging the motors and truss was painful, long and sometimes scary to watch. And much to our terror, we discovered during the load out that the wrong size pins were put in the truss! They were too small. We were very lucky that outside of a slight bend in some of the truss when we lowered it, nothing horrible happened.
IBEW also ran all power and audio in all of our additional breakout rooms. This was a very long and slow process. We had budgeted quite a bit of overtime, so I don’t think from a client perspective they would have noticed, but as a technical director it was frustrating.
At one point, one of the crew I brought in to manage them described this: ‘Imagine you gave a 50-year-old electrician who has worked on wiring houses his entire career a quick instructional session into how to set up a PA. That is what is going on here in every room.’ Obviously, this raised immediate concern about their ability to operate the PA systems. In the end, I decided to let them have a go because we had to work with them no matter what. So, starting the gig off with complaining wasn’t going to be the best way forward. They ended up being just fine, however, I had to use my own audio engineer to run the digital desks as they weren’t familiar enough with them. But being under their jurisdiction and not having confidence in their ability wasn’t a great situation. I literally had to use them regardless of the quality of work they could provide.
I have to admit after this experience I won’t be rushing back to work in this particular venue in Chicago any time soon. However, sometimes I don’t get any say in the matter. The client does end up disappointed when they don’t get the same quality of work from union workers, but they did select that venue.
I suppose what is more worrisome is what will happen to this venue in the future. Will these new union rules mean safety and quality will be compromised even further? What does it mean for the IATSE workers missing out on this work that they are most likely more qualified to undertake?
I take safety very seriously as do most people in this industry.
I am sure the IBEW team do too. However, without the proper training on the work outside of their original union realm, who knows what could happen. I heard from my chats around the place that the redistribution of work to IBEW was decided at a very high level – some even mentioning Chicago City Hall – making it nearly impossible to change unless something bad happens. I had offered to give some feedback on my experience, however, quite some time has passed now. Reflecting back now, perhaps it needs revisiting….