I had these two signs. Nothing too fancy, just two neon-lettered displays that had been permanently welded to a standard piece of 12"×12" truss, and were part of a trade show booth I was building. They were simple enough in concept, but were a bit wieldy in size and frequently took quite a bit of time to install due to their sheer size. Still, they were only two signs.

We came into a town that shall remain nameless, and were in the process of setting up the booth. The steward for the sign and banner hanging company in the hall came to me and mentioned they would hang the signs because they were, well, signs. I was delighted that he would come to me and I didn't have to walk all over the 300,000 square foot exhibit hall to find his 3 1/2 sq. ft. desk. I agreed and he soon sent over a boom lift and the required three men, who promptly began the work.

Before a single piece of steel was hung in the air, a representative from the local stagehand's union came over and not-so-nicely reminded me that it was their responsibility to hang the signs because they were electrical signs. With him came another boom lift and two more hands. As I tried to differentiate their claims, I noticed the rigger who was already working in my booth (with, you guessed it, a boom lift and two ground men) had come down and was wandering on over to our little pow-wow, after first having a quiet dialog with his own teammates. No doubt they were formulating a plan. He informed us that “everyone knows” the rigging company is the one who is responsible for hanging the signs because it is on trussing and has a substantial amount of weight. It was for safety's sake that he be the one to do it, he said.

Work had come to a grinding halt. The argument had as many sides to it as there were faces yelling at each other between Marlboro puffs. As I stepped back from the fire, I quickly noticed that all their respective cohorts in my booth had all stopped working in order to watch the show. How wonderful it was. I had six men all standing around waiting for direction, four men yelling at each other, three boom lifts taking up precious space, two signs laying in their wooden cases, and one booth racking up a huge labor bill with nothing to show for it.

During all these endless discussions about the rules of engagement and which union organization was responsible for hanging my sign, an epiphany entered my weary mind: I am not a fan of what the unionized entertainment companies have become. Before you start sending me hate mail, please hear me out. I am not against unions and never have been. I've received a tremendous education (sometimes against my will) by many a stagehand on unions, their goals, philosophies, and strong points. In most cases, I do not disagree. In fact, I have been known to pull up a few chain motors and load a few trucks with the IATSE Local 158 right in my hometown of Fresno, CA. Although not a card-holder, I do sit on an extra-board list waiting to be called only when the incoming rock-and-roll shows overwhelm our medium-sized city and its two humble arenas.

Actually, Local 158 are the real basis of my point. Here is a group of men and women for whom I have great respect. A majority of these union members have little to no experience out on the road or working with the entertainment industry outside of Fresno, but that hasn't stopped them from learning all they can from each other and the road crew, and working their butts off to prove it. They all know that each of them is working because they enjoy the work and enjoy the company of their own hooligan “brothers,” not to mention the money that comes with it. They all recognize that the money they earn comes from those who are bringing the fun: the client.

The riggers do the rigging. The stagehands do the stage handing. And the truck loaders do the truck loading. No questions, no bothers. Let's get it done, let's make some money, and let's go home. When uncertainty does come about, their fearless leader Mr. Sweaty (a.k.a. Gary Davis) discusses the matter with an even tone and makes a decision based on what is safe and best for the client, and also because it's the right thing to do.

Notice I said “even tone.” Arguing and yelling and threatening my sanity does not win me over. It does not make me respect you, your companions, or your mother. Strong-arming me by threatening to not do any work only forces me to discuss with my client the possibility of taking our show somewhere else — and along with it, our money and outrageously great personalities.

When I walk into a facility that demands I use union labor and commands I follow those union rules, okay, great, let's have some fun with the show! Undoubtedly, my client or I knew what we were getting into when the contract was signed months ago. But when union hands change the rules onsite to accomplish their own prideful agendas, or because I forgot to brush my teeth, this is just unnecessary.

If you have rules, even dumb rules like the length of lunch break is determined by the type of food served, fine. I like rules. Rules keep the drunken audio guys from pooping on the bus. I'm more than willing to work alongside unions and even for them, but let's be realistic in our expectations between clients and work forces. Let's show each other that we have something to offer the other with our civil discussions about the scenario at hand.

Speaking of scenarios, I have to go discuss with my client about never using neon signs ever again.

Nathan Freeland is founder and president of Broken Jar Productions, Inc., specializing in stage lighting, video projection, rigging and live entertainment productions for houses of worship, theatres and corporations. He can be reached at Nathan@brokenjar.com or at www.brokenjar.com.


All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:

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