Building Trades


By Bendix Anderson

Last week, the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center swarmed with workers setting up the New York Auto Show, the center’s biggest trade show of the year, opening to the public Friday, April 2.

Tradesmen worked on top of each other. Carpenters unpacked and pounded together displays the size of mansions while electricians strung fat cables to power 40-foot video screens and teamsters moved crates many times larger than the fork lifts they drove.

It’s essentially a giant construction site, but many construction projects allow their workers time to do their jobs one-at-a-time. “Trades are used to working alone. Here we do it all at once,” says William Hare, labor manager for Javits.

Workers had just nine days to set up the auto show, compared to the full month taken to set up show at its first stop in Detroit. To make their deadline, workers swarmed through Javits 24 hours-a-day during the set up. There’s lots of overtime for the workers — many pull 14-hour shifts. “George’s” coffee shop and cafeteria near the loading docks is also open 24-hours.

There are at least eight unions working at the Javitts Center to set up for the Auto Show, including Carpenters, Electricians, Engineers, Plumbers, Steamfitters, Teamsters, and Window Cleaners. (Nearly all of the 2,000-to-3,000 people hired by Javits for the show are union workers. That’s because Javits Center is owned by the State of New York, which requires all the workers there to be paid at minimum a “prevailing wage” close to union wages.)

“Our business is based on these guys being able to work together,” says Bill Turis, president of Teamsters Local #807.

The Javits Center is a famously small convention space, with about 700,000 square feet of room for exhibitions. That might seem like a lot, but it’s small compared to places like the Las Vegas Convention Center, which has 2 million square feet. To stay profitable, Javits moves shows quickly into and out of the space during the busy trade show months from January to June, when the convention center makes two thirds of its income for the year, according to Hare.

The convention center is getting even busier as the economy begins to pick up after its long slump. Hopefully that will soon mean even more jobs for union workers. “We might need open enrollment again,” says Turis. “Maybe this summer.”

April 5, 2010

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