Off the Cuff: October 2010

Philadelphia’s unions are too greedy.

Everyone is pissed off at the unions. Their greed — from teachers unions to government workers to labor unions in this city — has reached a point where the rest of us have had enough. Unions behave as if it’s perfectly okay that some people should make sacrifices while others refuse to. As if our state and national governments can go deeper and deeper into debt paying for exorbitant benefits. As if getting whatever you can squeeze out for yourself is simply what you have to do, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

And once again, there’s a perfect example here in Philadelphia. The Convention Center’s expansion is due to open in March, an additional one million square feet of space that will cost taxpayers some $800 million. The Center will become an even more important economic driver of the city economy, as thousands of conventioneers eat in our restaurants, shop downtown, visit museums and so forth. They’re a tremendous boon to the city — if, that is, they come.

And come back. Overwhelmingly, conventioneers fall in love with downtown Philadelphia. But they are often surprised and demoralized by the ongoing tug of war at the Convention Center with the six unions that control setting up and breaking down their exhibits and booths and computers. The unions charge high prices, work slowly, and pitch fits whenever a conventioneer makes the mistake of picking up a hammer or changing his own light bulb.

Of course, union greed here goes way back, to Mayor James H.J. Tate proclaiming Philadelphia a union city half a century ago, which helped successfully drive out industries such as printing. (This magazine hasn’t been printed in the city for three decades.) And union problems — including fistfights on the Convention Center floor over union jurisdiction — have plagued the Center from day one. Conventioneers report that the fistfights have ceased, but the trade unions are still aggravating and costly to work with.

That’s why Ahmeenah Young, Convention Center president and CEO, is in a public spat with electricians union head John Dougherty. Young is palpably frustrated: “The challenge is that everyone who works in the Convention Center is in the hospitality business,” she says. “But the unions are in the construction industry — it’s a shotgun marriage at best.”

Trade workers are typically in no hurry to finish jobs, because on most building projects, they keep getting paid as they keep working. But the mind-set with conventions should be just the opposite — they need to be set up and broken down as quickly as possible. “In our industry, the faster you work, the faster you’re able to get work,” Young says. Our unions don’t seem to get this.  

Now Dougherty is accusing Young of trying to push the unions out of the Center. Not so, she says. But cutting the number of trade unions working in the Convention Center, and gaining some control over how they operate, is absolutely essential, considering what is at stake.

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