Off the Cuff: July 2012

The Convention Center debacle has reignited the union debate in Philadelphia, and this time, we need to face it head-on.

As a longtime observer of Philadelphia, I am convinced that the city has a death wish. In fact, it makes a mess of everything it gets involved with, from the airport to parking to cabs to the vaunted but troubled Kimmel Center. Schools? A disaster. Now, after close to $800 million has been spent on the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, critics are calling it a financial flop. And there’s no escaping who’s to blame for this one.

It’s an old story, the power of unions here, going back to Mayor James H.J. Tate declaring with pride a half-century ago that Philadelphia is and will always be a union town. That’s why an old problem has flared up once again. A month ago, the city’s hotel association wrote a letter to the Convention Center’s board. Something has to be done, they said, because Convention Center customers—once they get a taste of the hospitality at the center, courtesy of the myriad unions they have to deal with there—don’t want to come back.

The letter cited a convention of True Value hardware, with 12,000 attendees, that generated $23 million in income for the city. True Value canceled its planned return in 2015, and is debating whether to avoid the city in 2019, too, because the center’s union workers, according to True Value executives, were attempting to steal from the exhibit floor. When the hardware show was being torn down, items ranging from power tools to light bulbs were supposed to be set aside for a local Habitat for Humanity. Instead, True Value says, it found them stashed in corners, presumably to be taken home. (Union heads Ed Coryell and Pat Gillespie denied any attempted theft.)

There have been other cancellations, and according to the hoteliers, the expanded Convention Center isn’t even matching pre-expansion numbers. That is a death knell for a business-poor city that has staked its future on the dollars generated by visitors.

John Dougherty and Ed Coryell, naturally, have gone on the counterattack. The problem, Dougherty claims, is bad center management, not unions. But an email we received from a large organization that also had a bad experience at the center says otherwise:

As for Philly—the same thing … continues. The union situation is untenable. As much as [we’ve been] assured that everything’s fine, it’s not fine, and the added costs and hassles are not worth the effort to bring a large show into town. If you compare the situation there (and NYC and Chicago) to Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego, Atlanta—the choice becomes very easy.

Naturally, I wonder why the Convention Center board seems incapable of standing up to the unions, with so much at stake. There are two answers, a former board member says: money and fear. Unions have a lot of political power because they give millions to candidates—not just in Philadelphia, but statewide. That’s why even though the board has state-appointed members, nobody’s willing to take the unions on. In fact, quite the opposite.

This former board member remembers the day Dougherty showed up at a board meeting a few years ago: “It was disgusting to me—grown businessmen and politicians kissing his ass, instead of confronting him. Their attitude was, can I get a little closer? They’re intimidated by these union guys.”

So I have a modest suggestion. Governor Tom Corbett, I’m sure you’ve noticed that other governors, especially Mr. Christie in our neighboring state, have taken on the vested interests of unions. And we’re talking about, after all, the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is time for you to take over running the center. Because the city is utterly incapable of ever making it work.