Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Members of Teamsters Local 631 complain their union is colluding with major convention center contractors to wean them of union labor, a suspicion that has spurred efforts to replace local Teamster leadership with a slate of insurgent candidates.
Among the members’ complaints: that the union is reducing their work hours — and then helping contractors hire cheaper, nonunion laborers whose work can be billed at union-wage prices to convention exhibitors.
In essence, members say the union has set up a lucrative nonunion employment agency within the union hall, at the expense of members whose hours are being cut. They complain that as they wait for work, the union hall dispatcher gives the jobs to nonunion workers who have paid $60 to be on the union work list.
In exchange for getting sweetheart deals from the union, the convention contractors are performing favors for union leadership, including providing work for family members, according to some union members.
The wife of Local 631 President Tommy Blitsch, for example, works for the Freeman Cos., a giant in the convention services business.
The union’s ambivalence toward — if not downright encouragement of — the company’s hiring of nonunion workers is fundamentally undermining the use of organized labor in the convention industry, a cornerstone of Nevada’s tourism-based economy, critics of union leadership say.
Blitsch didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. His personal attorney called the Sun and said his client did not authorize him to comment.
The allegations have drawn the notice of the oldest internal Teamsters reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which is working with members to overthrow the union leadership when they stand for reelection in the fall.
The general complaint: that the local is too chummy with the big convention hall contractors at the expense of its own members.
“There’s a lot of (leadership) heads being turned the other direction. The way they manipulate and work with the company, it’s not a union,” said Tony Milone, an 18-year veteran of Local 631.
Milone said he was told one day last month by a union dispatcher that Freeman had no work for him that weekend — only to learn from co-workers later that Freeman had hired nonunion workers. Freeman’s union contract allows for a blended hiring of union and nonunion workers, according to Teamsters members.
Freeman did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Union focus of anger
Milone’s anger is directed primarily at his union. “Here I am, sitting home, my dues are paid, I’m a member in good standing and they’re telling me they can’t work me,” Milone said.
Other Local 631 members, who contacted the Sun in response to an article last month detailing member dissatisfaction with union leadership, tell similar stories. (The article included comments from Blitsch, who later told a general membership meeting he never spoke to the Sun. Audio clips of the interview are posted with the earlier story.)
The Sun interviewed 11 Teamster convention workers who requested anonymity because they fear losing more hours. They said their complaints to union stewards and business agents had fallen on deaf ears, leaving many to suspect the worst.
Hiring hall protocol
Unions that serve the construction industry commonly provide hiring halls where workers — union and nonunion alike — often pay a fee to be placed on hiring lists. The union then dispatches workers in a prescribed ratio, generally outlined in a collective bargaining agreement between the union and an employer.
Members of Local 631 say that with the union’s cooperation, contractors are disproportionately hiring from among an overabundance of nonunion workers. The typically unskilled nonunion laborers are paid at a cheaper rate by the contractors, who nonetheless charge exhibitors the same flat labor rate, according to Candace Adams, an industry consultant who has run trade shows, been an exhibitor and written extensively about the industry.
In other words, according to the complaining union members as well as industry analysts such as Adams, companies such as Freeman are increasing their profit by passing over members of Local 631 and hiring less costly nonunion workers from the same hall.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said hiring halls can be a powerful tool because they allow unions to monopolize the labor pool in a given industry. At the same time, because unions control the dispatching, such halls are vulnerable to corruption, he said. Moreover, although many unions use hiring halls to recruit members, Local 631 leadership isn’t doing so and is thus squandering an opportunity to strengthen the union against future threats, union members say.
This is not the local’s first flirtation with nonunion labor.
In 2000, international President James Hoffa, citing “severe mismanagement,” sent his special assistant, Dane Passo, to Las Vegas to oversee the local’s rebuilding. Within months, the Independent Review Board, a federal watchdog of the Teamsters, found that Passo had engineered a deal with a Chicago friend, William Hogan, to steer hundreds of convention center jobs to nonunion workers employed by a temporary labor company where Hogan’s brother was a top executive.
Local contracts criticized
Members of Local 631 complain that local contracts are inferior to those earned by Teamsters locals with strong convention memberships
After particularly tumultuous talks and picketing, a 2004 contract with Freeman and GES Exposition Services led to a $1-per-hour raise — just 29 cents of which was devoted to wages, with the rest going to health care and other benefits.
Last year, the union signed contracts that provided more generous raises — $5 an hour over the course of the four-year agreements — but created a new labor classification for qualified nonunion workers, allowing them to compete against union members. Since the contract was signed, members say, hours have been cut, nullifying the raise.
As a result of the contract, convention contractors are shaping an increasingly nonunion workforce, which could undermine the union’s future, members say.
Union workers also are nervous at hearing that Freeman plans to open a nonunion warehouse in Mojave Valley, Ariz., with wages that start at $7.50 an hour. “Each move eliminates one more of us,” a Teamster convention worker said. “Each move is one more nail in the coffin.”
Despite the frustrations of members over cuts in their hours, they face a paradox: Convention exhibitors complain about the lack of qualified labor.
Adams, the trade show expert, said, “When someone says ‘Las Vegas’ I grimace because of the shallow labor pool of the Teamsters there.”
The Strip construction projects draw the best skilled labor, and the union doesn’t do enough to develop talent, she said.
Second-tier convention cities are on the rise because of their cheaper, more abundant labor and fewer headaches than those associated with places such as the Las Vegas Convention Center, where drug use, theft and workplace injuries are far too common, Adams said.
Convention contractors and unions met here in March at a national conference to discuss the issues facing the convention industry, including worker drug use — higher than national workplace averages — and the need for better customer service.
The Teamsters failed to send a representative.