Convention Center Got Restraining Order Against Carpenters Union

Execs say union members disrupted the Auto Show and vandalized cars. The union says it was simply protesting peacefully.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Members of Philadelphia’s carpenter’s union have been protesting outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center for months. On Saturday, the laborers took their message inside the center — directly to attendees of the Philadelphia Auto Show.

On that much, both sides agree. After that, there’s plenty of disagreement.

John J. McNichol, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, alleges that the 200-some-odd union members who entered the auto show were “disruptive” — vandalizing cars on display and acting belligerently.

“Some of them tried to intimidate our exhibitors,” McNichol said Monday morning.

Martin O’Rourke, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Council of Carpenters, rejected accusations of damage or bad behavior, saying the carpenters spent their time at the show “peacefully” handing out leaflets.

“No vandalism, no vandalism whatsoever,” O’Rourke said. “They were exerting their First Amendment right to protest. “

One fact not in dispute: On Sunday, a judge signed a restraining order commanding the union not to interfere with the show. Both sides stipulated to the order, which can be seen below (the order is erroneously dated 2014 rather than 2015).

Despite the incident, McNichol said, Saturday saw 60,000 people attend the auto show — its No. 1 attendance day ever. “This was far and away the smoothest show we’ve had,” he said.

Ongoing dispute

Carpenters have been shut out of work at the center since last May, when a new labor agreement went into effect that loosened work rules, giving conventioneers some leeway in setting up their own exhibits and displays. The union insists that it did sign the agreement; center officials say the carpenters failed to meet the deadline for doing so. (The carpenters have since lost several legal bids to force their way back to work.) The remaining unions are working to promote the new arrangement at the center in hopes of bringing more business to Philadelphia, and officials say the result has been a growth of bookings at the center.

That growth has been accompanied by protests from the carpenters, however, who have spent recent months demonstrating outside the center — often with a giant inflatable rat in tow.

Saturday’s incident represented a new level of confrontation between the two sides.

“The purpose,” O’Rourke said, “was to protest the unfair lockout of the carpenters from the Convention Center.”

McNichol said that roughly 200 members of the union purchased tickets to the show — he said they were identifiable by a sudden, suspicious rush of cash-only ticket payments that usually signifies a scalping operation — then entered in four waves on Saturday. Some members placed protest flyers on cars, while others, he alleged, “tinkered” with cars (in some cases removing knobs and fuses) — the resulting restraining order specifically prohibited such acts — or got in the display cars and refused to leave.

“I consider any touching of the vehicle, any dismantling of it, to be vandalism,” McNichol said.

They were identifiable as members of the carpenters union, McNichol said, because of their common blue hoodie. Convention security forces eventually escorted most of the protesters out, according to McNichol.

O’Rourke’s characterization of the carpenters’ actions was more benign: “They paid to get into the event, they were asked to leave, and they did.”

On Sunday, a Philadelphia judge signed a restraining order that was agreed to by both sides. The order commands the union and its members to refrain from “obstructing, threatening, harassing, intimidating, or otherwise unlawfully interfering” with operations at the show.

“If they try to do what they just did again, they’re going to go to jail,” McNichol warned.

McNichol said “there’s no reason” exhibitors at future conventions should be worried about similar disruptions. He dismissed a suggestion that the protest might’ve been an attempt to catch the eye of Democratic National Committee officials, who are close to deciding the location of the 2016 convention — and are reportedly nervous about labor trouble accompanying their own gathering.

“They could’ve been working inside the building,” McNichol said of the carpenters. “But it was their choice.”

O’Rourke, however, suggested the carpenters will be ratcheting up the pressure on the Convention Center. They unveiled a website “to educate the public of the unfairness” of the current arrangement, he said. Members of the union will also take their campaign to social media. It can all end, he said, if the Convention Center accepts the union’s signature on the workforce agreement and allows carpenters to return to work.

“It’s choosing not to,” O’Rourke said of the Convention Center, “so the protests will continue.”

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