By COLIN STAUB and DON McINTOSH
Oregon Convention Center will no longer employ its own audio/visual workers at convention center events. Instead it will choose an outside contractor to provide AV services at the publicly owned event venue—to be paid directly by customers.
On Dec. 18, a week before Christmas, all seven part-time AV technicians at the publicly-owned event space were laid off. Their employer promises they’ll be brought back as needed—as temps dispatched by their union hiring hall. That’s until the outside contractor is in place, likely next summer.
Oregon Convention Center AV workers had been represented by IATSE Local 28 since 2016, but COVID hit the events industry hard, and most of the 24 AV workers employed before the pandemic were already gone. The Convention Center returned to hosting events, but still hasn’t bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. Fiscal year 2022 revenue was 55% of its pre-pandemic level.
The Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission (MERC), a seven-member volunteer body heavy on travel industry professionals, is in charge of the Oregon Convention Center. Commissioners are appointed by the elected Metro Council, and rely on Metro staff. The commission’s job is to oversee Portland Expo Center and Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.
IATSE Local 28 learned of the plan to privatize AV on May 31, 2022 when union representatives first met to begin bargaining a new union contract for the AV unit.
Metro’s HR managers had led MERC’s bargaining team in previous contract negotiations, with Metro staff attorneys attending as needed. This time, MERC hired an outside attorney to lead the bargaining, Steven Schuback of the management-side labor law firm Peck Rubanoff Hatfield. IATSE Local 28 business representative Rose Etta Venetucci says the explanation given was that Metro’s attorneys were too busy. But then a Metro attorney was at the table the whole time too. To even the odds, Local 28 brought in worker-side attorney Elizabeth Joffe of the McKanna Bishop Joffe law firm.
MERC’s bargaining team started the negotiation with a startling proposal: Eliminate the department and lay off all the staff. From then on, bargaining focused almost solely on severance pay.
Angered by the move to privatize their good-paying union jobs with public employee benefits, AV workers rallied with supporters outside the Convention Center on Sept. 7—while the monthly meeting of MERC commissioners took place inside. Several workers attended the meeting and told commissioners that cutting in-house staff is a bad idea. But MERC stuck to its plan to eliminate the Convention Center AV department. No MERC members spoke against it, and support for privatizing was unanimous.
In the end, MERC and Local 28 reached agreement on a contract that provided $28,000 to $44,000 in severance pay, depending on how many hours employees had worked prior to the pandemic.
“We negotiated the best we could done for our workers,” Venetucci says. “But this is not what we wanted. We signed a contract, but I felt like we were forced. It is not what the unit wanted, and it is not what the union wanted.”
“These are all AV technicians who chose to work for Metro,” Venetucci explained. “And several of them have worked for many years at Metro. If they wanted to go work for one of those other employers they would have already done it.”
AV technicians voted Oct. 22 to ratify the agreement, and MERC commissioners approved it at their Nov. 2 meeting.
But the question—“Why did Metro privatize AV?”—still has no very satisfying answer.
MERC spokesperson Carolyne Holcomb provided the following explanation by email: “Working with an AV partner is an industry standard, and the OCC seeks to align with that standard. A future AV contract partner will offer a level of sophistication that our clients and guests have come to expect for their events and conventions.”
During the Nov. 2 MERC meeting, Metro’s labor and employee relations supervisor Elizabeth Arnott framed the shift as a change in management, not a change in staff. Arnott said AV workers will go from being permanent employees of Metro to being temporary employees dispatched through the IATSE hiring hall, and eventually to being employees of a contractor.
MERC also signed a letter of agreement saying management will request “to the extent allowable under applicable law” that the new vendor recognize IATSE union representation for its workers.
Where does Metro stand?
Metro councilor Christine Lewis, who serves as the Metro Council’s liaison to MERC, provided a statement by email, saying she understands MERC’s reasoning for outsourcing AV work, and supports it.
“Working with a vendor offers Oregon Convention Center the ability to better align with industry standards and provide services that clients have come to expect, especially when also working with centers across the nation,” said the email. Lewis praised the in-house AV department but said “technology expectations are growing rapidly.” Clients want services that require more equipment and technology, like live-streaming, Lewis said. Oregon Convention Center would need to invest significantly to equip its in-house team with those abilities.
“What was once a stable and profitable business model will require such significant investment we either wouldn’t keep up or would quickly become unprofitable,” Lewis said.
“We believe that is unfounded,” says Venetucci in response. “Somebody gave her that statement.”
Venetucci says Convention Center AV equipment was used regularly. And when they got a request for specialized equipment they don’t have, they rented it, and brought in outside techs to operate it when needed.
Lewis said Metro expects the new vendor will meet or exceed IATSE’s current hiring hall pay and benefits. The new Local 28 contract covering AV workers at the Oregon Convention Center will technically be in effect for one year after MERC hires a new vendor. Lewis said that’s to provide a transition period until a union contract can be negotiated with the new vendor. She said she expects the new vendor will be a union shop.
Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said much the same in an emailed response to a request for an interview. Peterson said she anticipates the future vendor will use the same group of workers.
The AV workers’ last day as Oregon Convention Center employees was Dec. 17. Under their final contract with MERC, they got an 8.5% raise retroactive to July 2022, and they’ll get the severance.
But workers say the plan to outsource was a mistake, because it ignores the benefits of an in-house team, like knowledge of the building, a consistent presence for repeat customers, and reliable service.
Kyle Huth, an AV worker who served on the bargaining team, said legacy clients who have hosted events at Oregon Convention Center for years have developed relationships with the AV workers, and frequently comment on the production quality the workers provide. In their final weeks on the job when workers got that feedback, Huth says they often didn’t have the heart to tell the clients their jobs would be cut before the end of the year.
A separate local, IATSE Local B20, represents about 122 other part-time Oregon Convention Center workers, including ticket sellers, gate and checkroom attendants, ushers, elevator operators, and stage door attendants. They ratified a new contract in October that provides raises totaling 12% plus $2.75 an hour over the three-year duration of the agreement.