If the hostile labor situation at the Pennsylvania Convention Center was ever a secret, it's not anymore. The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority and the center's largest union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, are at press time caught in a high-stakes, highly public showdown over a proposed labor agreement brokered by Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street. It's the latest round in a season of union controversies affecting the meeting industry, including threatened strikes of hotel workers in Chicago and Honolulu and civic workers in Toronto.

In Philadelphia, the PCC's board of directors initiated the public debate of the building's labor woes when it hired Philadelphia-based Econsult Corp. last spring to assess the center's competitiveness. The report, released in June, was scathing, finding the PCC labor situation “is perceived as the worst encountered anywhere in the country at this time.” Among the problems identified were low labor productivity, delays caused by jurisdictional disputes among the center's six unions, and high labor costs. In interviews with 31 convention center clients, “virtually every customer suggested that PCC labor was either inefficient or hostile,” the report said. (You can download the 68-page report at www.econsult.com/e_news.htm.)

Readers experiencing a sense of déjà vu may recall the January 2001 Project Labor Agreement (PLA) negotiated by Mayor Street and the center's six labor unions, which was supposed to establish work rules and iron out jurisdictional conflicts. It also created the job of “site representative,” a person dedicated to resolving disputes. In the estimation of the Econsult labor-management consultants, that site representative role can be compared to a tourniquet on a major wound, it “slowed the bleeding, but it has done nothing to prevent injuries.”

Underscoring the Econsult study was a public testimonial this summer by at least one unhappy customer. “In my over 25 years of involvement in producing meetings from New York to Anaheim to San Francisco and Chicago, I have never been confronted with such a negative labor situation as was experienced in your city,” wrote David A. Karcher, executive director of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, in a letter to Philadelphia Mayor Street and quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 17, 2002). ASCRS has threatened to pull its 2008 Symposium and Congress out of Philadelphia after problems at its June meeting, a troubling development considering medical meetings are the heart of the PCC client base — half its 2002 citywides are healthcare-related.

“I want to emphasize that Philadelphia is a great destination, but it [the center] is just too darn expensive,” says ASCRS director of meetings and conventions Jane Krause. The June meeting, ASCRS's first in Philadelphia, saw labor costs “a couple hundred thousand dollars higher” than other sites, and that was after pre-meeting negotiations that mediated some of the costs. “By the hour, they're not any more expensive than any other city, but if it takes three times as long to do a job, it's three times as expensive.” ASCRS will make a final decision about 2008 in the next couple of years, based on improvements in labor's efficiency and attitude.

Expansion Brings National Focus

With the proverbial can of worms open and squirming, labor was forced to the negotiating table, which appears to be just what the PCCA was hoping for. Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tom Muldoon sees a resolution of the union problem as a key step toward the state legislature's approval of funding for a convention center expansion.

“The reality is that if we weren't trying to expand the building, then we wouldn't have all this publicity,” says Muldoon. “But nobody…is going to approve $450 million dollars [for the expansion] unless they have an assurance that we're going to maximize that money, and we can't maximize that expenditure unless we're able to rebook our base business.” According to the bureau, of the 133 conventions with more than 2,000 room nights that have met in Philadelphia since 1995, only 20 are booked to return. That's a return rate of only 15 percent.

Econsult made numerous recommendations for change, including the addition of a chief operating officer at the center to oversee day-to-day operations, consistent discipline of PLA rule breakers, and, most radically, elimination of jurisdiction distinctions among the carpenters, laborers, and Teamsters. Econsult suggests a unified workforce model, in which workers would be hired by show contractors through a new labor broker.

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau has endorsed all the Econsult recommendations, and has worked with the PCCA to create a new policy for customer complaints and establish a permanent customer advisory council. PCCA is also working on hiring a COO, creating a monthly client newsletter, and developing new performance criteria for the center.

In late August, PCCA, the center's six unions, and Mayor Street went into marathon negotiations, emerging in early September with something short of a deal. That is, the PCCA board and five of the unions had agreed on several arguably significant reforms — including allowing exhibitors to set up booths of up to 300 square feet themselves and creating some composite work crews (see sidebar, page 37) — but the center's sixth and largest union, Metropolitan Regional Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, has refused to sign.

At press time in mid-September, the pressure was mounting on the Carpenters, with eight business and hospitality organizations endorsing an open letter encouraging the union to sign the proposed agreement.

“The hope is that [Carpenters union leader Ed] Coryell sees the light and signs. The next question is, if he doesn't sign the document, what then?” asks the CVB's Muldoon. “The ultimate hammer is that the state take more direct control of the building and do something very similar to New York. [The Javits Center has replaced union labor with state employees.] But the Convention Center Authority lawyers are looking at what can be done without going that far.

“There is a commitment by really all but one or two people in the Carpenters union to do this [labor deal],” continues Muldoon. “Can somebody hold out against the collective will of the community? I guess we'll know that in a week or two.” At press time, the state legislature had convened for a 10-day session, a session in which PCCA supporters are hoping they take up the question of funding for a convention center expansion. “We have to have a clear, clean labor document to get that to happen,” says Muldoon.

Stay tuned.

The Agreement, as It Stands

If the Carpenters Union falls in line with the other five unions operating at the Philadelphia Convention Center and agrees to sign the new labor agreement on the table in mid September, clients can expect a number of significant improvements. Here are some key changes in the hoped-for deal:

  • Exhibitors with booths of 300 square feet or smaller can set up and dismantle their own booths (no power tools), including lights, flooring, and up to 10 computers.

  • To streamline and simplify the labor hiring process, a labor broker (subcontracted by the convention center) will hire, at cost, all the union show labor for contractors working on an event.

  • “Composite work crews” will allow some unions to work together without job distinctions. (This is short of the “unified work force” recommended in the Econsult report.)

  • Contractors will be allowed some flexibility in choosing the union foremen and workers they prefer.

  • Contractors will be allowed to bring pre-assembled pipe-and-drape dividers.

  • Weekdays, the first eight hours of union labor is paid straight time, regardless of the time of day.

  • Work stoppages or sympathy strikes will not be allowed.