Would Exhibitors Flee if Carpenters Returned to Convention Center?

A year to the day after controversy over a new customer service agreement shut the union out, the battle continues.

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

If the carpenters union returns to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Sue Hueg wants none of it.

Hueg, the vice president of events for National Business Media has seen it both ways — shows that involved the carpenters and one that didn’t. The difference between the two, she said, was unmistakable.

“They’re very difficult to work with, they’re back in the 1800s,” Hueg said of the carpenters and their work rules, which she said frequently forced exhibitors to unnecessarily rely on union labor to build convention displays that vendors could build themselves. That made convention-going in Philly both difficult and expensive, she said.

“We need hard-working, customer-service-oriented people who understand exhibitors are on a budget,” Hueg said. “This is not hard to understand.” 

Today marks one year since the carpenters allegedly missed a management-set deadline to sign a new customer service agreement with the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (The union insists that it did sign the agreement; it has since lost several legal bids to force its way back to work). The agreement was signed after years of complaints that expensive and complicated labor rules were driving convention business to other cities. Since then unions representing riggers, stagehands, laborers and electricians have divvied up the work at the center, which has claimed a growth in convention business thanks to new, more customer-friendly work rules signed by those unions.

The carpenters have spent the year trying to reclaim a spot in the Convention Center, holding regular pickets and writing letters to discourage groups like the Democratic National Committee from making use of the space while the dispute continues. A state labor hearing examiner recently reversed himself and said he would hear arguments in the case.

That prompted an angry response from Convention Center officials who said that if carpenters returned to the job, the center would suffer. “Many customers have been savvy enough to include provisions in their agreements that, if the carpenters return to the building, they have the right to cancel their events,” John McNichol, the center’s chief executive, told the Inquirer.

Philly Mag checked with three organizations that had been identified in media accounts as having been angered by the old work arrangements only to return under the new agreement.

The aforementioned National Business Media, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, which declined comment, and The Academy of Management, which said it expects to return to Philadelphia for conventions in 2021 and 2026.

“We have worked both before and just after the union issues at the center,” said Taryn Fiore, a spokeswoman for the latter group. “Our experience in Philadelphia — while certainly different than other cities, was a positive experience for our members both years — I expect that our future years will be positive as well.”

Hueg, with the NBM show, was unequivocal about her dislike of the carpenters.

“When we came to the show in 2014 (after the new work rules were imposed) it was night and day,” she said. “It was a dramatic difference. We don’t need them. I don’t know why they think we need them. We don’t.”

But Martin O’Rourke, who represents the carpenters, said Convention Center customers shouldn’t worry if his group does return to work there. The carpenters, he said, will abide by the new, customer-friendly rules.

“They are a quality group of workers, they are skilled craftsmen,” he told Philly Mag. “The carpenters signed the customer satisfaction agreement. There is a non-issue with the work rules, there is a non-issue with the CSA.” The only real dispute remaining, he said, was whether the carpenters really did miss the deadline to sign that agreement.

But Convention Center CEO McNichol said it wouldn’t be easy to reintegrate the union. One of the benefits of the work rules as they currently stand, he says, is that they neatly divide tasks between the unions that remain. Customers don’t get confused about which laborers are needed for which tasks.

“It’s easier, it’s faster, it’s more efficient, it’s more economical for customers,” McNichol told Philly Mag.

The two sides are currently battling in court over whether the labor hearing examiner will be allowed to hear the case. McNichol, at least, hopes the new status quo can remain in place.

“I think what you’re seeing from customers is less, ‘We don’t like the carpenters’ and more ‘We like the new rules,’” he said. “It gives us a place to grow from, rather than go backwards.”

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