With two less unions, move out of the 2014 World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology conference, the world’s largest industrial biotechnology event for business leaders, investors and policy makers, went smoothly at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on May 15.
While the show’s opening on May 12 was met with picketing by Local 107 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters against newly instituted work-rule changes at the facility, all other unions continued their work as scheduled with the exception of the Teamsters and Local 8 of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters.
Completed in record time, the dismantling work normally performed by six unions was performed by only four at the close of the conference. Show producers scheduled pick up of dismantled exhibits at 6 p.m.; however, union crews were nearly finished by 3 p.m., almost three hours ahead of schedule.
“It was like a dance,” stated John McNichol, chief executive, Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority. “Kudos to them.”
In its 11th year, the conference was exhibiting for the first time at the facility. Reporting that attendees were not disrupted by the picketing, the conference overall seemed unaffected by the absence of the Teamsters and Carpenters’ unions.
Show officials not only praised the work performed by the four unions present, but have also secured future events at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“There didn’t seem to be any issues whatsoever,” said Paul Winters, spokesperson for show producer Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). “The success of this week gives us high expectations for next year.”
Last held at Pennsylvania Convention Center in 2005, approximately 15,000 attendees are expected at next year’s BIO International Convention, the organization’s most important gathering of biotech professionals, scheduled June 2015.
As the first show to operate under a new Customer Satisfaction Agreement at the Philadelphia Convention Center without the Teamsters or Carpenters’ unions, all work was to be divided amongst the unions that did sign the agreement by the May 5 deadline set by facility officials – International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Artist and Allied Craft of the U.S. and Canada, Local 8; Laborers International Union of North America, Local 332; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 98; and International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, Local 405.
Union leaders who signed the agreement showed support for the new work rules in a group letter on May 15 addressed to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and other political leaders.
Writing on behalf of their unions were Michael Barnes, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 8; John J. Dougherty, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 98; Samuel Malone, International Association of Iron Workers, Local Union 405; and Samuel Staten Jr., Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 332.
“While we did make some concessions, in the long run enabling the Center to compete more effectively for convention and tradeshow business in a very competitive industry market will bring in additional customers, creating more work hours for our members,” the letter stated.
Going one step further, the four trade unions promised a grace period to the Convention Center as union members and customers adjust to the changes.
“We are 100 percent committed to making these new work rules a success; delivering customers a hospitable experience; and recruiting and retaining customers for the Center. As a demonstration of our commitment, each of our unions have pledged not to file any work grievances or initiate labor disputes for at least six months because we want to allow for sufficient time needed to amicably work through issues for the betterment of the Center,” said the letter.
Some contention remains despite the facility reaching an agreement with a majority of the trade unions.
While Samuel Malone, business manager, International Association of Iron Workers Local 405, received a standing ovation as well as a reelection from his members for signing the Customer Satisfaction Agreement, General Vice President and Regional Leader Stephen Sweeney was less than enthused.
Sweeney, who outranks Malone, had issued a statement to Convention Center management to bring back the Carpenters and Teamsters, but signing the Iron Workers to the Customer Satisfaction Agreement went against the wishes of the union officials at the national level.
“This is an internal thing that we will discuss,” Sweeney said. “I am the vice president for this region, and I speak for the Iron Workers.”
Without naming them, the open letter implied that the Carpenters’ union was the source of an allegedly sour repute amongst customers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“We believe [the work rules are] the only way to shift the negative perception that customers have about doing business at the Center – a perception we believe is largely the result of the actions and behavior of one union and is unfairly attributed to all,” the letter said.
Contending that the Carpenters are cooperating and accepting of the work-rule changes, Martin O’Rourke, a spokesman for the Carpenters, disagreed that the union is the root of the facility’s reputation.
“The Carpenters signed the agreement,” said O’Rourke. “They are willing to go to work, and they will abide by the agreement.”
On May 9, the Teamsters and Carpenters, who believed they had until May 10 to decide, signed the Customer Satisfaction Agreement after its ratification on May 6. Although union contracts with the facility did not expire until May 10, the refusal of leaders for the Teamsters and Carpenters to accept work-rule changes caused union workers to lose all convention center work beginning May 6, according to Pennsylvania Convention Center officials.
To be in effect for 10 years, the Customer Satisfaction Agreement expands customer rights, such as the use of step ladders and power tools within their booths.
In an open letter from Jack Ferguson, president and CEO, Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau, confidence remains high that the work-rule changes will bring increased business to the city and may open the possibility for expansion of the facility.
“[S]takeholders wanted to be updated on the Pennsylvania Convention Center because they know it’s the most important gear turning the economic engine of our region. When the center is full, it creates compression in hotels, restaurants and attractions, which equates to increased job opportunities for people from every neighborhood,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson referenced the success of two events – American Academy of Neurology and BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – occurring during and immediately after the implementation of the work-rule changes.
Pennsylvania Convention Center Chairman Greg Fox emphasized that the facility was operating under outdated work rules. To remain competitive, restrictions against exhibitors necessitated an update of the union work rules.
“Nationally, the trend in the convention industry was leading venues to provide greater freedom to exhibitors to perform work in their own booths. Yet the Convention Center was still operating under a decade-old agreement with trade unions, one that contained many provisions that were outdated given the changes in the industry,” Fox said.
“It was time to address the extra time, resources and money that [Center customers] had to expend while doing business in a Center with outdated work rules and onerous limitations on exhibitor rights. It was time for the Center to stop wasting precious time while our competitors used the Center’s lingering labor problems to lure away customers.”
Citing that some limitations against exhibitors were perceived as unfair, particularly use of step ladders and power tools, Fox stated that “perception placed the Center at a competitive disadvantage,” which caused the Convention Center to lose revenue.
“The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau – which markets and sells the center as a venue for tradeshows, conventions and other events – notes that between 2012 and 2014, the Center lost out on $1.3 billion in economic impact from convention business due to cancellations by customers or the failure to win business,” Fox claimed.
“Based on customer surveys and feedback, PHLCVB attributed the losses to the Center’s antiquated work rules…the ‘hassle factor’ of the Center’s work rules too often outweighed the positives.”
Praising the four unions that signed the Customer Satisfaction Agreement, Fox claimed that implementing the work-rule changes would help draw more convention business to the Convention Center.
“[I]t is also important that we recognize the courage and conviction of those four trade unions that signed the [Customer Satisfaction Agreement],” said Fox. “They recognized that thousands of hospitality jobs were at risk unless new commonsense work rules – rules demanded by our customers – were put in place.”
Fox shared optimism that the Customer Satisfaction Agreement will boost Philadelphia’s ranking as a convention destination among U.S. venues.
“With a new Customer Satisfaction Agreement and other changes in place, our great city can reclaim its status as a top-tier destination for convention and tourism business.”
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