High wire act 

Before nearly every show at the massive Orange County Convention Center, a small team of freelance workers, dressed in work boots, shorts and gray golf shirts, heads up to the rafters of the exhibit hall, some 60 feet off the ground. Catwalks crisscross the ceiling, but that's not where these workers operate. They must step off the security of the walkway and balance themselves on 7-inch steal beams. The sole purpose for the riggers, as they are known, is to hang banners in the Convention Center's six exhibit halls.

Before 1998, Convention Center riggers were known to "surf naked" -- that is, they walked beams without the aid of a harness and emergency cable. No rigger has ever fallen or been injured at the Convention Center, but the potential was always there. "I think about falling all the time," says Jeff Letourneau, a Lake County firefighter who has been a part-time rigger for two years. "It kind of goes with the job. A lot of us love being that high because we consider ourselves to have a skill nobody else has. It's a pride thing."

Convention Center management, on the other hand, doesn't consider the riggers to be anything special. They're lumped in with 517 "primetime" employees who work within the center's nine divisions. Primetime employees are not full-time and not part-time; they're on-call, casual employees willing to work when needed, for as long as needed.

Primetime employees have no medical benefits or pension, and no formal grievance process, which has caused the riggers considerable anxiety. Riggers freelancing for private companies have arranged, through a union, to set aside some of their per-hour wages to pay for benefits. But since Convention Center riggers aren't recognized as a bargaining unit, they don't have that option available.

The riggers, which number about 60, approached Convention Center management last fall about arranging an election to organize. They wanted to become a local chapter of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which has a district office on Oak Ridge Road west of Orange Blossom Trail, about a 10-minute drive to the Convention Center. IUPAT, as it's known, has employed hundreds of painters working on the various construction phases of the Convention Center expansion over the years.

But the union represents no county workers; the Laborers International Union of North America, on the other hand, represents 1,150 Orange County employees, including 190 at the Convention Center.

Once the riggers notified management of their desire to unionize, relations between the two sides turned nasty. To emphasize their displeasure with the grievance process, riggers began taking a hard-line stance on safety issues. For example, they notified management they would no longer scrape off the fire-retardant material covering the steal beams. For 20 years, since the Convention Center opened, riggers have chipped away small sections of the fireproofing so they can attach clamps to the beams. Cables, fastened to exhibit show banners, are attached to the clamps.

Several Convention Center supervisors became angry with riggers for failing to remove the fire coating. "We were told it was part of our job to remove fireproofing from the building and anyone refusing would be sent down the road," according to rigger Randy Rich in a written statement provided to the Weekly.

When Convention Center management continued to push riggers to scrape off the fireproofing, riggers notified the Orange County Fire Department, which subsequently wrote the Center a code-violation warning in December to "cease removal of fire protection material immediately."

Removal of the fireproofing was not life-threatening. Less than one percent of the coating was removed from the entire 1.1 million square-foot Center, according to Orange County Building official Bob Olin and Orange County Fire Marshal Dan Kucik. The Convention Center also has a fire sprinkler system in place, which is a more effective means of protecting visitors in the event of a massive fire, according to Kucik. Even so, the Convention Center paid Terra Firma Construction more than $161,700 to replace the missing fireproofing.

Another issue raised by the riggers is the large amount of dust kicked up by exhibits like the covering show. Formerly called the International Tile Show, the show features exotic marbles and floor tiles from around the world. When it's over, workers break down the exhibit by bulldozing and sawing the samples. That produces a kind of dust that is harmful to the lungs -- especially if inhaled over a long duration.

In the same way asbestos leads to asbestosis, silica dust -- a byproduct of sand and granite -- produces silicosis, which kills 300 people worldwide each year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A severe case of silicosis is called "the angel of death" because of the wing-like pattern that appears on x-rays. There is no cure.

Riggers alerted Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart, who visited the Convention Center as the covering show was being dismantled. Dust was billowing everywhere, she says, but she didn't see many safety measures in place. "There were a number of people who weren't wearing protective gear," she says. "I don't know if that was their choice, but I certainly would have been wearing something." She says the Convention Center is testing the air quality but results won't be back for several weeks. "I don't know what you do in those circumstances if it comes back positive," Stewart says. "It will have been 10 to 15 days before we know if anyone was exposed."

In addition to the safety issues, tension between supervisors and riggers has flared in several other ways. Letourneau, the fireman, says managers began enforcing picayune regulations, like not eating in the exhibit halls, and began harassing employees by unplugging the television in the break room. "Little stuff like that," he says. "It was childish, tit-for-tat things."

Management's main target has been Matthew Shortt, a 45-year-old New Jersey native who has worked off-and-on at the Convention Center since 1998. As the riggers' main organizer, Shortt has documented a number of times Convention Center supervisors have harassed him for leading the union cause. He says his hours were drastically reduced, and that he was threatened with trespassing charges for talking with a reporter. In August, Shortt says, a supervisor named Todd Krause approached a group of riggers and said, "You riggers should find out which one of you called code enforcement about the fireproofing being removed and give him a blanket party." (A blanket party is a vigilante act whereby a blanket is used to hold down a victim while he is pummeled with fists and weapons.)

Shortt says Krause knew he was the one who complained. One of the riggers, Chris Miller, verified this account in a written statement provided to the Weekly.

Three days after the new year, Convention Center managers and two Orange County law enforcement agents called Shortt into an office and pushed his job application form in front of him. Shortt spent five years in prison in the mid-1980s on attempted murder and robbery charges in Brevard County. He was paroled in 1987. Shortt says he omitted the felonies on his application because a supervisor told him, during the screening process, that the charges were too old to worry about.

Yet five years after he filled out his application, managers fired him for failing to include the information. "That was kind of ridiculous," says rigger Michael Fishbough. "Everybody knew Matt's background. It was common knowledge. But he was the one who was the most vocal about being in a union." Shortt has filed a lawsuit seeking back pay and restitution of his job.

Tom Ackert, the Convention Center Executive Director for 12 years, acknowledges low-level managers have committed what he considers less than professional behavior. "Evaluations have been done and reprimands issued," he says. "In fact, we're in the process of reviewing one case right now."

Ackert says some of the allegations appear to be overblown and that he has found no incidents of threats by supervisors. "We insist upon a certain quality of behavior," he says. "If we don't get it, we will take more severe action."

Ackert says Convention Center management is not anti-union; part of the problem with the riggers, he says, is that they mistakenly believe he can acquiesce to their demands and recognize the union on his own. According to state law, any decision by Convention Center management will be subject to review by the Public Employees Relations Commission. One of the Commission's hearing officers, Jack Ruby, has already determined that, despite County protests to the contrary, the riggers have bargaining rights as public employees.

But Ruby also said the riggers are not the special bargaining unit they hoped to be. If riggers want to be part of an alliance, they'll have to pursue representation through the Laborers Union, which has expressed an interest in including them with the full-time employees it represents.

The riggers, however, prefer to be affiliated with IUPAT because the painters union has adequate training facilities and will allow the riggers to form their own local. IUPAT representative Steve Hall says he's tried to meet three times to work out differences with Orange

County Chairman Richard Crotty, who oversees the county's 6,200-employee labor force. Crotty has failed to respond, Hall says, inflaming some of the more radical elements of Hall's membership. Some are calling for the "black and gold brigade" -- referring to IUPAT's trademark colors -- to become a presence outside the Convention Center to get Crotty's attention.

Hall says he's been able to hold them off -- for how much longer, he can't say. "The leadership in this community doesn't want to go there," he says. "But if they leave me no choice, what else are we going to do?"

More by William Dean Hinton


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