By COLIN STAUB
The Metro regional government aims to eliminate all union-represented audio/visual positions at the Oregon Convention Center and instead give that work to an outside contractor. During a Sept. 7 rally, workers let Metro know that’s a mistake.
The audio/visual (AV) workers are represented by IATSE Local 28. They provide sound and video services for live events at the Convention Center, located at 777 NE MLK, Jr. Blvd. in Portland.
Before the pandemic hit, the bargaining unit included more than 20 workers. COVID was rough on the AV unit, and throughout the live events industry, and the unit is down to seven part-time positions. But even though events are returning, Metro is proposing to eliminate the Convention Center’s AV department.
The previous contract expired June 30, and IATSE has been bargaining with the Metropolitan Exposition-Recreation Commission (MERC), the appointed board that manages Metro facilities. Early on in the bargaining process last spring, it was clear the two sides were far apart. MERC retained an outside management-side labor attorney, Steven Schuback of Peck, Rubanoff & Hatfield (workers say it’s the first time MERC has done that in contract negotiations), whose first proposal was about severance.
“We are a working AV team making shows happen, and they’ve decided that it’s too much work to have employees,” said AV worker Tim Rooney, a 12-year Convention Center employee and bargaining team member. “They would rather farm it out to someone else and collect a check at the end of the month.”
In its contract proposal — obtained through a public records request— MERC proposes to lay off the workers between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2023.
“MERC has expressed an interest in no longer offering AV services to clients through an internally managed and staffed team, but instead to contract with a professional AV services company to offer services as OCC’s preferred provider,” the proposal says.
MERC spokesperson Carolyne Holcomb told the Labor Press that management is bargaining in good faith, but otherwise declined to comment on the negotiations.
Rooney and other workers say management is getting bad advice, and isn’t thinking about what outsourcing would do to the quality of shows. Rooney works as a video director, which means for the video component of shows he decides what’s on-screen. He works in an environment similar to a television control room. The AV team works closer with clients than almost any department of the event staff.
“If you’re putting on a convention here, you don’t see who sets up your chairs, and you don’t see who fills the water bottles, but we’re at the table next to you all day, day after day,” Rooney said. “So we know the technical points of things, but our real job is to be the face of the Oregon Convention Center, to make it as easy as possible for someone to speak.”
The Sept. 7 rally in front of the Convention Center took place at the same time MERC held its monthly meeting inside. Chanting was briefly audible inside the meeting before the door was closed.
Several workers testified before the commission. One was the AV technician providing sound service for the meeting itself (another worker took his place during his testimony). Workers said there are benefits to an in-house AV team that aren’t being considered. When equipment breaks, workers can go down the hall to their storage area and get a replacement.
Under their current contract, after a six-month probationary period AV technicians make $23.43 an hour, and lead AV techs make $28.16 an hour. As public employees, their contract provides PERS retirement benefits. They have medical insurance.
It’s possible they could apply to work for the third-party contractors. In its proposal, MERC says it will seek to contract with a third-party provider that offers current workers employment at the same wage they’re currently paid. There’s no agreement that MERC would have to work with unionized providers. But the proposal says MERC will request, “to the extent allowable under applicable law,” that vendors recognize IATSE Local 28. It also says MERC will seek contractors that use the IATSE hiring hall, but none of the language appears to be legally binding.
IATSE Local 28 business rep Rose Etta Venetucci says third-party contractors routinely sub-contract out AV services, a total departure from the current system.
“Metro jobs have worker retention of far longer than those subbed out by AV contractors, who often misclassify workers and fill temp positions by ads on Craigslist,” Venetucci said.
The Convention Center also employs members of AFSCME Local 3580, which represents workers across Metro facilities. AFSCME members set up tables, chairs, stages, bleachers for events and do custodial work and work side-by-side with the AV department.
“Everyone in labor should be concerned whenever we see jobs getting contracted out,” said Local 3580 President Elizabeth Goetzinger, who attended the rally. “What’s happening to our union siblings in another trade could be happening to us the next day. We have to show employers that these are not the solutions to their business problems. And that we are watching the decisions that they make.”