"The unions are killing us."
The statement is uttered at the city's tourism bureau, bandied about in business circles, muttered in political corridors. It's a catch-all phrase, explaining St. Louis' hemorrhaging convention business.
Now, after years of tenuous labor relations, the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission the public agency responsible for infusing some $2 billion a year into the area's economy has taken up arms against three unions that staff events at America's Center.
At issue: teleprompters, tape recorders, microphones and televisions.
The offensive began March 8, when CVC president Kathleen "Kitty" Ratcliffe circulated an advisory from ex-St. Louis Cardinals offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf, chairman of the CVC's board of directors.
"America's Center is a building that holds few secrets from the people who work here," Dierdorf's memo begins. "So, you probably already know that the Convention & Visitors Commission has asked Kitty, Bruce and their staffs to begin a conversation with representatives of the 100 or so employees who regularly accept assignments involving audiovisual equipment at America's Center."
Under fire are the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 6 (Stagehands), the IATSE Local 143 (Projectionists) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1.
The CVC claims that it's tired of being held hostage by outdated and byzantine union work rules that jack up convention prices in St. Louis.
Dierdorf concludes: "I believe that it is time to face up to the issues that the 156 full-time and hundreds of part-time employees in this building (and most event planners and rival facility managers) know are our biggest competitive challenge."
The so-called conversation between the union business managers and CVC officials began cordially enough over iced teas at Cardwell's at the Plaza the following afternoon.
It was only later, after perusing a twelve-page position paper delivered by Dierdorf, that the labor leaders realized they were being thrust into the biggest bargaining battle ever waged by the CVC.
According to the position paper, a copy of which was obtained by Riverfront Times, the CVC wants America's Center (which the CVC operates) to become the employer of all audiovisual personnel a middleman between conventions contractors and the unions.
The move would put the kibosh on the 30-year practice in which contractors strike their own labor agreements with the locals. According to the CVC, that custom has cost the region staggering sums.
"In the last 5 years, at an absolute minimum, America's Center lost 31 major Events because of either Customer problems with the AV Locals or because of the AV Locals' reputation in the convention community," the tourism bureau's position paper states.
"America's Center estimates conservatively that these events would have generated approximately $132 million for the local economy, including 443,250 hotel room nights. It is not difficult to imagine that America's Center lost an equal number of Events because of its reputation for labor difficulties about which it is not even aware."
But union business managers believe they're a red herring for shoddy salesmanship and bush-league attractions.
"Five years' worth of events," seethes Jack Beckman of IATSE Local 6 (Stagehands). "I may have a reputation as a hothead, but I am fair. For them to tell me we lost these shows because of audiovisual I swear on my father's grave, nobody ever told us about it until now."
"It is unfathomable!" echoes William Watkins, with the Projectionists. "I think the CVC should think for a minute about the fact that St. Louis is known for the highest crime rate in the country, it has no direct flights, there are very few restaurants where meeting planners can eat, the dome floor is covered with turf six months of the year and can't be moved for conventions, and there's no retail downtown.
"We talk to everybody that comes in and out of there. You know what they say about St. Louis? 'There's no shopping!'"
Kitty Ratcliffe is the only CVC staffer authorized to discuss the current negotiations. She says, "This is a problem that has existed here for a very long time. And everybody in the industry knows it."
Kitty Ratcliffe took the helm of the CVC in May 2006. Her résumé reveals experience at both right-to-work (New Orleans) and unionized (Baltimore) convention bureaus. No stranger to St. Louis, the 49-year-old Chicago native cut her teeth as a CVC sales rep here in the late 1980s.
Ratcliffe's return to the St. Louis convention center coincides with its most sizzling sales pitch to date: 502,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 1,083-room "headquarter hotel" the Renaissance Grand & Suites an improving cityscape and enhanced entertainment options, including Ballpark Village, and a revitalized St. Louis Centre on the horizon.
It's a trying time in the industry, however. In the early 1990s, medium and large cities in many states began laying out billions of dollars to build or expand their exhibit halls. Then came the events of 9/11. Tighter bottom lines ever since have left event planners with far less money to spend on meetings and trade shows.
Still, St. Louis should be poised to thrive in this crowded marketplace, say veterans of the trade. The Gateway to the West may lack the attractions of a Las Vegas or an Orlando. Our summer and winter weather can be off-putting. But like other Midwestern cities St. Louis is a cheaper venue than a San Francisco or a New Orleans and, as a result, a magnet for frugal government and religious organizations, or for corporate and professional meeting-planners out to save a buck.
But compared to our major rival, Kansas City, St. Louis is struggling. The cities bid annually on roughly the same number of "citywide" conventions. (That's a group that books more than 1,000 hotel room nights.) Yet Kansas City managed to bait and net 42 percent of those bids last year, while St. Louis logged between 25 and 30 percent.
In the past, CVC officials blamed sagging business on the lack of a headquarter hotel. That long-awaited property, the Renaissance, opened for business in 2003 but has struggled to get the CVC to fill its beds ever since.
Bob Bedell, the CVC president from 1993 to 2002 who promised to double the city's number of larger conventions if the hotel was built, declined to comment on his St. Louis tenure. But Bill Bohde, vice president of convention sales under Bedell, says it was customers' perceptions of and complaints about organized labor that turned off perspective clients.
"I give Kitty Ratcliffe a ton of credit for taking on the challenge," says Bohde, who now heads up sales at the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. "That is not an easy situation to put yourself into."
For her part, Ratcliffe has made a number of sweeping changes, including beefing up the CVC's Washington, D.C., sales office and forming a sales team to court lucrative corporate meetings. She's also overhauled the marketing department and assembled a group of advertising gurus from top-flight St. Louis companies (including Maritz and Anheuser-Busch) to develop St. Louis' "brand."
"How does the guy who works at the gas station articulate who we are if someone asks: 'What's St. Louis about? Why do you like it there?'" Ratcliffe explains. "It's not a tag line. It's not a fancy jingle. It's the basic DNA of a community."
Robert Bray, general manager of the Renaissance and a CVC commissioner, lauds Ratcliffe's results so far. "The climate over there is no longer 'sit-around-and-wait-for-the-phone-to-ring,'" he says. "And Kitty Ratcliffe is not afraid to tackle some very, very complicated issues like the unions."
Labor leaders, though, fear Ratcliffe wants to banish them completely and that the Center is moving toward a right-to-work mindset. Says the Stagehands' Beckman: "You get a stranger in there and she thinks she's going to change the whole world."
"This is not about busting the unions," counters Ratcliffe. "It is about having work rules that make sense and that are competitive so we can bring more business to this community."
Conventioneers arriving at America's Center quickly learn the building's rule of thumb: Hands off!
Unless it's your own product guns for a gun show, say you can't touch the nuts and bolts that will support your booth, no matter whether you were allowed to assemble it yourself at last year's gathering in San Antonio, or the year prior in Nashville.
America's Center is a union shop, with no fewer than six locals sharing every last minute of the set-up and tear-down work. Only Chicago and Philadelphia are known to house so many labor organizations under one roof.
In St. Louis it's the Teamsters (Local 600) who haul exhibit freight with forklifts and the IBEW (Local 1) who installs all electrical devices. The Decorators & Displaymen (Local 39) lay carpeting, hoist curtains and build registration counters. They and the Carpenters' Union (Local 47) erect exhibitors' booths together.
Need lighting rigged in the Edward Jones Dome? That's a Stagehand's job. How about a screen for a workshop? You must hire a Projectionist.
Observers of a St. Louis trade-show set-up can see that the real division of labor is much more complicated than that, though. Say the freight belongs to the contractor producing the show: The Decorators or Carpenters get to push it off the truck before the Teamsters can haul it to the booth. What if a customer wants its main-stage entertainment filmed? The IBEW and the Stagehands alternate that job on a show-by-show basis.
The labor leaders admit that the guidelines can seem labyrinthine to the layperson. "But let me tell you," says Frank Condellire, of the Decorators, "if you don't have rules, you've got total chaos. If the customers were doing everything, it'd be like a flea market. And safety would be an issue."
The unions' jurisdictions hark back to the Center's founding in 1977. In those days, organized labor enjoyed prominent footing at the facility. One of the old exhibit halls was even named "Labor" in honor of contributions made when the building budget fell short. That goodwill endured for the better part of the 1980s, when business was brisk.
But labor relations between the Center and its locals reached an all-time low in the early 1990s. Fewer customers were coming to town, causing the brother unions to bicker like schoolyard boys. "We'd fight over who was going to move a box," remembers Terry Nelson, the Carpenters' Union's executive secretary.
To keep the peace, then-Mayor Vincent Schoemehl appointed union kingpin Bob Kelley to the CVC's board. For six years Kelley tried to broker a labor agreement between the Center and its locals. The idea was to prevent strikes and devise a dispute-resolution system to squelch fighting in front of customers.
The Stagehands' Jack Beckman and his audiovisual counterparts signed onto the pact, as did the Carpenters' Nelson. "I realized we could huff and puff and blow all we want, but the customers were making serious statements that they weren't going to come here and do business anymore," Nelson explains. "I know it sounds very strange coming out of a union leader's mouth, but we moved very strongly toward making good business decisions."
The Teamsters would not endorse the accord, however, nor would the Decorators, and in 1997 negotiations collapsed.
The unions were nonetheless very giving, recalls Kelley.
"When I first got there," he says, "nobody carried anything in the building unless they were a Teamster. Then the CVC started having a lot of mom-and-pop shows, with exhibitors who make crucifixes, or picnic tables that they bring in their own truck. Or you have a guy who sells locks, and he carries $100,000 of them in a suitcase. It used to be that he had to bring the suitcase to the dock and the Teamster had to carry it in. Well, the customers finally said, 'Hey, that's nonsense.' So we made the rule if you can carry it inside in a 'suitcase,' you can carry it in."
But clients always wanted more concessions, Kelley adds. "The next thing you know, a guy has a damn golf bag that he wants to call a 'suitcase.' Everybody pushes the limits."
Convention center unions are no different than other organized labor groups: sluggish to relinquish responsibilities for fear that their services eventually won't be required, explains Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, a Dallas-based nonprofit.
The technology revolution only heightened the rank-and-file's fears. As Bob Kelley explains, "You can do things today with a laptop that it used to take ten men and four truckloads full of stuff to do. The bottom line is, these groups are fighting for their survival."
But even after concessions, costs can balloon if unions insist on other conditions, such as minimum-hour requirements, the CEIR's Ducate points out. Perhaps more than anything, he says, exhibitors hate paying a union electrician the requisite four-hour rate to plug a computer into an outlet. That's been a longtime beef in St. Louis, where the IBEW plugs in and networks all PCs.
"We're a high-tech company with a lot of computers and software," complains Ohio-based Stephen Holder, organizer of the Rockwell Automation show held here in 1994 and 1998. "Does an electrician in St. Louis know how to set up my computer? I'm sort of anxious about that. And it was their job to unbox the stuff, too. I said, 'Time out! I have over 750 computers, and you guys have to take them out of the box and set them up, when my guys can do it in half the time?' In other cities, if it's your box you unpack it yourself."
In 2004, six years after Rockwell's second show, the CVC finally persuaded the IBEW to let exhibitors unpack and repack their PCs. In exchange, the CVC promised to pay the union if it caught any exhibitors trying to connect their own computers. (Holder's show returned in 2005. "It was better," he says. "But St. Louis can always improve.")
Other significant jurisdictional changes occurred in 2004. The Teamsters said exhibitors could ferry materials via dollies. And the Decorators let exhibitors with booths measuring less than 300 square feet assemble their own spaces without using power tools.
Around the same time, America's Center took the rare step of naming longtime employee Melanie Donnelly its official labor relations manager.
A PR blitz followed, with the CVC hoping to lure back lost business. Today, if you Google "labor relations and convention centers," St. Louis appears first.
But have the changes resulted in more customers and more work for the unions? "We're still waiting," says the Decorators' Condellire.
It's a Thursday in early April, the day before the colossal National Rifle Association convention opens at America's Center, and workers from the six unions are scurrying about, transforming the Center into a mammoth gun shop. At 64,562 attendees, the gathering will be both an NRA and a city record-breaker.
Over in a small office in St. Louis' Southampton neighborhood, meanwhile, where a dozen still-in-working-order 1920s movie projectors line the windowsill, IATSE Local 143's business manager Bill Watkins explains the group's genesis in St. Louis movie theaters. The Local's membership peaked in 1948 at nearly 300, but today numbers just 34.
Still, Local 143 maintains a six-decades-old contract with St. Louis-based Swank Audio Visuals, a primary contractor at America's Center. The Projectionists man the Center's meeting rooms, setting up screens and PowerPoint presentations and monitoring the workshops. "Our guys are coat-and-tie, or business-casual, so your usual description of 'union guy' is thrown out the window," says Watkins. "Now the Center would like to disrupt the way we've been doing things there for 30 years."
A little after 11 a.m., one of Watkins' Projectionists telephones from the NRA setup. An argument has ensued between Local 143 and another union over a plasma television.
"Well, OK, first of all, let's be nice, let's be friends about it. This is one of those gray areas. Who did it come to as freight?" Watkins asks his member.
"OK," he goes on. "It's Swank's and 143 has the contract with Swank, so we do it. OK? Talk to you later."
Plasma televisions are popular tradeshow features these days and a sticking point for the Projectionists and IBEW. Watkins' group considers plasmas a second-generation projector a piece of equipment traditionally in 143's purview. But IBEW considers plasmas a second-generation television its responsibility.
Two weeks before the NRA gathering, Watkins and the IBEW's business manager, Stephen Schoemehl, decided that if a plasma TV were addressed to the audiovisual company, the Projectionists would install the equipment. Otherwise, it's the IBEW's job.
But CVC staffers were far from assuaged by the apparent reconciliation. They allege that disputes like the NRA instance occur routinely, no matter what handshakes have taken place.
"Imagine if you're the customer, and the unions are fighting about this in front of you," says CVC president Ratcliffe. "You're saying to yourself, 'Why am I doing business here? If I go to Kansas City, I only deal with two unions. There won't be any fights, and my stuff will just get done."'
Each of the members of the three St. Louis unions in question currently specializes in one kind of work: rigging and staging, projection, sound. It's been that way for a hundred years.
But as part of her labor agreement, Ratcliffe wants America's Center to train every audiovisual staffer in all of the trades. That way one man instead of three (or ten instead of thirty, and so on) could tackle all of a client's audiovisual tasks. The costs and the quarreling would plummet, Ratcliffe says.
Her pact's other thrust is to combat "shadowing," which happens when America's Center customers bring their own audiovisual personnel and are forced to hire local laborers to hang around on a "standby" status, getting paid to do nothing.
According to the CVC, three IBEW workers and Projectionists must oversee ten meeting rooms. During main-stage productions in the Edward Jones Dome, one Stagehand typically shadows every non-union worker. The practice is unheard of in like-sized cities, although prevalent in Chicago and Philadelphia.
"How do you argue that to the customer?" asks Ratcliffe. "How do you say, 'Well, sorry, that's the way it is in St. Louis'?"
Contractors and event planners claim their salaried staffers can accomplish the work not only quicker and cheaper, but better, since they choreographed the lighting, graphics and sound in the first place.
"When we go to a city where we can't bring our own people, we have no idea what we're going to get," explains Stuart Danneman, national sales manager for Georgia-based Tech Rentals, an audiovisual contractor. "Unfortunately, their mindset is: 'If the show goes great, great. If the show goes bad, oh well, we still get paid.'
"Well, in our business we're only as good as our last show. I can do a show for XYZ Company and it'll go great in Atlanta, and great in Denver, and if I have a problem in St. Louis that's what the client remembers."
Opines Bob Kelley, the former CVC commissioner: "I think it's all bullshit. I had situations where the CVC told me a show was so unhappy they would never come back, yet the union business manager had a letter from the show manager saying he wanted to thank them because his guys were so helpful and courteous."
If customers are shocked by invoices, it's the sales staff's fault, in the union leaders' opinion. "These salespeople are paid according to their productivity how many sales they get," says Kelley. "I'm not saying they lie [to potential customers]. I'm saying sometimes they don't tell the whole truth."
Linn Vogt, owner of Pacific-based Klance Staging, an audiovisual labor broker, agrees: "I can't tell you how many times I'll get a call a month before a show to go over the requirements, and the customer will all of a sudden say, 'Wait a minute: This is a union building?'"
The brother locals have demanded the CVC turn over documents describing the purported thirty-one events America's Center lost in the last five years. But Ratcliffe says she has no plans to release any such papers.
"We have examples over the years of perhaps inappropriate [union] conversations with customers, so we're not going to subject our customers to that," she explains. "We're not going to put them in the middle, unless we wanted to kill the business forever."
Riverfront Times filed a Sunshine Law request for six years of exit surveys from groups who used the Center. To research the public documents, the CVC demanded a $7,500 down payment, a fee that media lawyers deemed unnecessary. RFT continues to try to obtain the exit surveys.
The CVC did identify some past customers willing to explain their disenchantment with St. Louis' audiovisual services. Interviews with the clients elicited fervent feelings against "shadowing" and work disputes.
The Solid Waste Association of North America forwarded Riverfront Times a related e-mail sent to Swank Audio Visuals after a 2003 meeting here:
"I am reviewing your invoice and I am shocked by the exorbitant pricing," the message reads. "Not only is your pricing on rentals very high, I am also not sure why we need to pay what appears to be double labor..... Compared to other centers, your bills are almost double what we have paid elsewhere for similar activity."
Swank Audio Visuals declined to comment for this story.
Pam Reisinger, meetings director for the American Association of Law Libraries, which met here in 2006, wrote in one exit survey obtained by Riverfront Times: "The contractors AALL hires are experienced and well seasoned professionals that have worked in most of the convention centers in the United States. It was unsettling to hear them discuss the 'absurdity' of some of the labor rules in St. Louis and their reluctance to have to work in that environment again."
In a telephone interview, Reisinger expressed additional complaints, including dowdy America's Center furnishings, a lack of downtown entertainment and limited lunch options.
Calls by RFT to other customers (independent of the CVC's suggestions) were either not returned, or the requests for comment for this story were refused.
Says Local 143's Bill Watkins: "This whole perception that we have labor problems I think the CVC has helped create it and keep it going. I think they fanned the flames."
Both sides say they're fighting for their survival. And so far, neither is willing to relent. The unions have been awaiting word of the next round of talks since they filed a collaborative response to the CVC on April 6.
As to whether the groups can reach a middle ground, perhaps Chicago and Philadelphia will serve as models. Both cities experienced similar problems a few years ago, prompting their respective mayors to help negotiate labor agreements between the exhibit halls and unions.
It remains to be seen if St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay who draws voters from labor's rank and file will step into the fray. Both the St. Louis locals and Ratcliffe have reached out to him. Slay's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Contractors, for their part, say a building takeover could actually ramp up costs and cause other headaches. According to Cecil Adams, an Exhibition Services & Contractors Association board member who works on labor issues, compromise may only be possible if contractors such as Swank and Klance Staging intervene.
"I think unions have their place, especially in metro areas," Adams observes. "I think they tend over a period of time to increase their demands to the point that they start becoming a liability rather than an asset, in some cases. And I think it's the contractor's job to negotiate with the union to make sure that doesn't happen."
Perhaps the only certainty currently is labor's strength in numbers.
Ratcliffe would have been reminded of that during an afternoon meeting with Terry Nelson, Frank Condellire and Dan McKay (president of Teamsters Local 600) at Dan Dierdorf's Town & Country home, just a few days before the CVC put its parleying offensive in motion.
The CVC leaders apprised the tradesmen of the talks and assured them America's Center has no intentions of taking over their members.
"I could see [Dierdorf] is in a quandary," recounts McKay. "He's been a union member all his life with the National Football League this has to be hard on him, and I know it's hard on the people at the Center. But it's also hard on the unions. And as I told Dan Dierdorf, if they throw a picket line up there, the Teamsters will not cross it."
Says Condellire: "At the end of the day, the unions will back each other."