How and When to Work with Trade Show Union Labor

If your motto is “don’t sweat the small stuff,” then you likely don’t work as a trade show union laborer. From cables and lighting to exhibit placement, setup and tear-down, the talented folks working behind the scenes are laser-focused on the details. But union labor is expensive, and at some point every exhibitor wonders, “Can’t I do some of this work myself?”

Every Venue Has Its Own Rules

When it comes to the question of who can do what during display setup and tear-down, every city and venue has its own rules. And to further complicate matters, there are 27 Right to Work states — i.e., states that have given workers a choice when it comes to union membership. That means your exhibit setup experience at a show in New York (a forced unionism state) will differ dramatically from your experience in Nevada (a Right to Work state).

For exhibitors, the best advice comes from “Booth Mom” Candy Adams, a frequent and well-known contributor to EXHIBITOR magazine:

“There are so many unions and various local contracts, it’s really tough to nail down who can do what and where. When in doubt about what unions will be represented on your trade show floor, what their jurisdictions cover, and what functions you, as the exhibitor, can perform, call the operations department of show management.”
~ Candy Adams

General Division of Labor

Most convention centers require exhibitors to hire a union crew for setup and disassembly of booths larger than 10’x10′ or 10’x20′. These standard sizes are designed to be assembled and dismantled within one to two days.

Even small venues normally publish a list of tasks that exhibitors are forbidden from performing themselves. As you would expect, carpentry, electricity and rigging are usually the first items listed, but there are lots of others.

This EXHIBITOR magazine article provides a more comprehensive list of tasks that most often require specialized labor on the trade show floor:

  • Move freight. This is generally a function of teamsters (union members who deliver large crates/pallets with forklifts), even though in some cities, temporary or casual non-union labor is hired to move cartons on dollies in lieu of teamsters.
  • Build exhibits. The number of unions that have jurisdiction over un-crating, installing, dismantling, and re-crating exhibits varies depending on the city.
  • Decorate the hall. Some cities have a separate decorators union dealing with drape and decoration.
  • Rig signs/lighting and un-skid equipment. Riggers hang signs or move large equipment off pallets and position it in your exhibit.
  • Lay carpet. In some cities, carpet, pad, and protective covering can be laid by the carpenters’ or decorators’ unions, but a separate carpet-layers’ union can also be found in more than a few venues.
  • Complete electrical work. Electrical unions have jurisdiction over all power-related functions, whether performing floor work such as running your under-carpet cable, assembling and hooking up lighting fixtures and signs, or managing large power loads (208V).
  • Install plumbing. Plumbers work with air, water, waste, gas lines, tanks, heating, cooling (including refrigeration), and ventilation.
  • Set up audiovisual and staging for theatrical products. Stage and theatrical workers’ unions often claim jurisdiction over AV work that includes projecting images on a screen, adjusting lights, raising and lowering scenery, positioning microphones and equipment, creating and editing sound effects, controlling equipment that regulates sound and picture quality, rigging and scenery for theatrical productions, and even some decorating tasks.

Phew. That’s quite a list … we know. So how can you save on labor costs? Generally speaking, there are a fair number of tasks that exhibitors can perform on their own without having to involve union labor.

These tasks include:

  • Material handling/drayage: You can usually hand carry in one load of exhibit properties from a designated location (generally not the shipping dock) to your booth space. Depending on the local union rules, use of a two-wheel luggage cart may be allowed; four-wheel dollies and carts are usually prohibited.
  • Installation and dismantle: As long as your exhibit doesn’t exceed 10 feet in width or 8 feet in height, or cover a booth space of more than 100 square feet, you can install and dismantle it yourself. Such properties have to be installed and dismantled by one full-time employee of the exhibiting company in 30 minutes or less without hand tools or ladders. Some unions allow a 1-to-1 or 1-to-2 ratio of exhibitor-to-union labor to perform I&D tasks.
  • Labor supervision: You may use your own personnel as supervisors of contracted union labor. Specific ratios of union laborers to exhibitor-provided supervision may be spelled out in local union agreements.
  • Electrical work: In the majority of convention facilities, you are allowed to plug in electrical devices (equipment and lighting) to a 120V electrical outlet of 20 amps or less.
  • Lighting: You can usually install light bulbs and hanging lights as long as no tools and ladders are used.
  • Cabling: You are allowed to run your own communication cable between machines (e.g., connecting computers, badge scanners, keyboards, printers, and credit-card readers) above the booth carpet.
  • Equipment: You can set up, test, and tune equipment as long as it is your product or used to run your product.
Know Before You Go

The I&D company Absolute Installation and Dismantle has compiled a list of rules for some of the most popular trade show host cities. Just know that this list is not ironclad, not comprehensive and not written for your particular venue. Check your contract. Contact your show manager. We cannot stress this enough.

Or … you can leave the minutiae to us and breathe easy. EXHIB-IT! does do it all! Our trade show management service division handles shipping logistics, setup and tear-down, on-floor labor communications, and even climate-controlled storage after the event. Let us know how we can help.


Sources used to compile this article include:

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