Work begins today on converting Time Warner Cable Arena into a suitable site for the Democratic National Convention. We hear all the time that North Carolina is one of the most anti-union states in the country - and it's true there are few labor unions here. But they'll be out in force over the coming months preparing Charlotte for the DNC.
There's one local union that plays a significant role here year-round. "If you see a concert at a major venue - Time Warner Cable Arena, Bojangles Coliseum, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater - our guys put that on," says Bo Howard, business agent for Local 322. The people who build the stage, dangle from the rafters to hang the lights, run the sound equipment and make the sets move for nearly every major performance in Charlotte are affiliated with Local 322. The union's official name is a mouthful: "International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Motion Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada," Howard rattles off.
PROTECTING ITS AREA
North Carolina's "right to work" laws make it illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment. So, Local 322 is basically a temp agency. You're not required to pay the annual $276 union dues to get on a crew. Union or not, stagehands on Local 322 contracts get paid the same rates. Howard says less than a third of the 300 or so regulars in the Local 322 labor pool are actual members. The only real motivation to join is so you can have a say in union business.
"It's kinda like being a shareholder in a company as opposed to just being a part of the company," explains Howard. "The only people who are able to steer the direction of the labor force, of the movement, are union members."
The union takes a 5 percent cut of everyone's pay to cover administrative costs, including Howard's salary. Last year, he says the union did $2 million in payroll. For a city with so few union shops of any sort, Howard is proud of the lock Local 322 has on stagehand work in Charlotte. He says "it's because we've done such a good job of protecting our area."
Last week, Howard sat down to renew one of the union's long-standing contracts at a small conference table in the office of Blumenthal Performing Arts President Tom Gabbard. Howard pulls an embossing stamp from a leather pouch and punches the union's seal on each copy.
"LOCAL 322 HAS THE BEST TALENT"
Gabbard says he contracts with Local 322 because it has access to the highest quality talent in the market. And, he says the rigid breaks and job descriptions sometimes seen as a disadvantage of union labor are actually the standard in big theater productions. "It's reassuring to a producer that they know things will go smoothly, that they're not going to incur a lot of extra costs because there's some kind of crazy organizational system locally," says Gabbard.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority gives a similar explanation for why it relies on Local 322 for events at Time Warner Cable Arena, Bojangles Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. But those are city-owned venues, and in North Carolina it's illegal for a government agency to contract with a labor union. The CRVA gets around that by asking Local 322 for referrals and hiring those stagehands directly. Local 322 still takes its 5 percent cut from those paychecks. Bo Howard describes the arrangement with CRVA as a "handshake agreement."
Calvin Hunter sees it more as an exclusive contract that squeezes out his non-union stagehand company called Production Management Specialists. "I have no problem losing out on a bid to union, if it's fairly bidded out," says Hunter. "That's the free market." But Hunter can't bid because CRVA doesn't take bids for stagehand work.
CRVA CEO Tom Murray says the arrangement with Local 322 is not exclusive and any agency is welcome to refer experienced staff.
DNC PREFERS UNIONS
But in reality, the union is everywhere. And Hunter's about to lose out to it again on what he hoped would be a big business opportunity. He put himself on the vendor registry the DNC established for companies looking to do convention business, but so far, nothing's come his way. "No calls," says Hunter. "Two months out and no calls. In our business two months out, no calls is not good." DNC organizers are unapologetic about their preference for using local union labor when possible.