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Union Roots

Unions, a controversial topic

Politics, religion and money are the topics to avoid in polite conversation, but one could argue – with tongue firmly in cheek – that you could cover all three topics by discussing unions. From its political ties, list of martyrs and dues collected from paychecks, it’s no wonder that unions are controversial.

However, the intent of our series is to take a comprehensive look at the installation and dismantle labor industry in which unions are deeply entwined. We will delve into the history of unions simply to understand why we have unions. Secondly, we want to talk about the structure of unions. And lastly, we want to explore their relationship with today’s economy and the tradeshow industry.

This part of the series also coincides with Labor Day, a national holiday honoring laborers. (See “A History of the Brothers of Carpenters & Joiners”)

Photo credit: Corey Johnson
Photo credit: Corey Johnson

Unions within a capitalist economy

America was built by immigrants who took the initiative to uproot their lives, leave their families and hometowns to take control of their own destiny. This “master of your own destiny” culture values independent people and a competitive economy that rewards the merits of hard work.

Yet the capitalist philosophies of independence and competition conflict with the values of a union in which people band together and champion equality for all its members even the old and less-skilled. Critics say the union system produces inefficient and lower-quality work. But why do unions exist?

Despite the benefits of free commerce, there are few case studies of businesses fighting for the rights of the people at the bottom of the ladder. From seatbelts in cars to sanitary food handling practices, it is usually the average people who band together to fight for reform that benefit society. In the workplace, unions are needed to protect less skilled workers and fight for their safe working conditions, fair wages and defined working hours.

Chicago’s union roots stem from the stockyards

Even today, Chicago has a deep tie to unions that stems from the historical stockyards. In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” a fictional story of a Lithuanian immigrant family that was uprooted to America by the promise of opportunity, but instead found corruption, exploitation and oppression in the filthy meat-packing industry. From butchering animals to packing the meat, each family member worked long hours in difficult and dangerous conditions. Among their afflictions were severed fingers, tuberculosis and blood poisoning. But the companies had no reason to provide safe working conditions, for each laborer could be easily replaced by someone fresh and healthy.

Sinclair’s book achieved national acclaim and was influential in reform, but to Sinclair’s disappointment, most of the reform was for food health and safety rather than bettering the conditions for workers.

“Bloody Thursday” in San Francisco


Another city known for its strong unions is San Francisco, which was the location of the longshoreman strike that led to “Bloody Thursday” on July 5, 1934.

During the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was a staggering 25 percent. With a huge unskilled and desperate labor pool from which to draw, the longshoreman’s boss held what was called “the shape-up” every morning, where hundreds of men gathered at the dock in hopes of getting picked for a job that day. San Francisco State labor professor Harvey Schwartz said, “The hiring was exploitive and brutal. You had to put out a bribe to get a job.”

Those lucky enough to get to work that day had the strenuous job of unloading heavy cargo from large ships. Shipping companies lost money if they did not get a ship back out to sea, so it was not rare for a longshoreman to be on the job for 12, 16 or even more than 24 hours straight. Henry Gaitan, a San Pedro longshoreman from the era, said, “The longest shift I ever worked was 32 hours. It was just a continual operation and your hands would bleed from that rough burlap. God, it was tough.”

When the longshoremen read in the newspaper that they were to be hit with two straight wage cuts, they decided to unionize and strike. During their strike, violence from police and the National Guard escalated from tear gas to guns. Seven pro-union men were killed by police, two on Bloody Thursday. Their funeral procession through San Francisco is credited as the turning point of the strike. After other unions formed a general strike and shut down the West Coast, the longshoremen won their demands and formed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that is still organized today.

Local 510 Sign and Display working on a scaffold.
Local 510 Sign and Display working on a scaffold.

Unions exist to protect workers

The lack of protection for unskilled workers which occur in free commerce is the driver behind unions. Unions negotiate contracts to ensure that the workers can collect benefits, health care and have safe working conditions. To prevent exploitation, unions work to define hours in the work day, overtime, holidays, vacation, health care and job protection for older workers. Transparent finances are paramount, and pay rates are publicized so that no one can undercut another. Unions are also democratic and equal. Meetings are open for attendance, and every member, including the union president, has one vote. The workers can only succeed if they stand together in unity.

Unions in America today

According to the Wall Street Journal, union memberships in both the private and public sector have dropped from around 23 percent in the 1970s to 11.1 percent in 2014. (http://www.wsj.com/articles/membership-rate-falls-for-u-s-unions-in-2014-1422028558) Laws protecting unions have relaxed, especially in the Midwest and South, to make their states more desirable locations for businesses looking to relocate to less expensive locales.

For tradeshow installation labor, cities that have strong union ties include Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and all have different rules, regulations and skill sets.

No centralized union for tradeshow installation work

The U.S. meetings industry contributes $907 billion to the U.S. economy and generates 6.3 million jobs, according to a study released by PricewaterhouseCoopers. However, there is no centralized union or regulatory body for tradeshow installation work. The unions evolve from other trades, particularly the carpenters, builders, window display decorators and sign-painters.

Lacking a centralized governance, there’s no standard rate nor consistency in training, processes or safety. Also it’s difficult for worker mobility as a tradeshow union installer in San Francisco cannot work in Chicago because he is not part of the local union in another city.

What’s to know?

The differing rules are extremely confusing for all exhibitors, but especially newcomers and international exhibitors. Exhibitors should consult their exhibitor services manual or provider.

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