Illinois Lawmaker Proposes MPEA Board Shakeup; Controversial Labor Proposal in Limbo for Time Being

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Springfield, IL – Response to the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (MPEA) proposal to overhaul the labor environment at McCormick Place came quickly this week in the form of a bill in the Illinois State Legislature. The bill would effectively oust the MPEA board that came up with the plan and appoint an interim panel.

The measure, introduced by Illinois House of Representatives Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D), passed the House January 12 and was on track for approval by the Senate before the end of the week.

MPEA Proposal: A ‘Lose-Lose’ Situation?
The quick action by the General Assembly was typical of the rapid pace of developments surrounding the high-profile defections of two major trade shows last Fall. Show management in both cases stated that labor costs charged to their exhibitors were the primary reasons to leave McCormick Place in 2012.

The MPEA unveiled a dramatic proposal on January 11 that would consolidate the McCormick Place unions and make their workers MPEA employees with no right to strike. The plan would also allow the MPEA to audit show organizers and service providers to ensure that any resulting cost savings are passed down to the exhibitors.

The trade show industry’s reaction was initially low key. The MPEA proposal raised serious concerns that it was misguided and could backfire and wind up hurting everyone, including the show organizers, their exhibitors, service contractors and the unions. There is also the chance that prolonged and high-profile uncertainty about the labor situation at McCormick Place would hamper Chicago’s efforts to market itself as a trade show and convention destination.

Due Diligence in Springfield
Currie’s bill would get rid of the current MPEA board and install a smaller interim board tasked with taking a detailed look at the situation at McCormick Place. The bill would also permanently reduce the MPEA board from 13 to seven members.

“The idea is to get a smaller group to look at the situation,” Currie told Trade Show Executive. “The MPEA has asked the legislature for the ability to do some pretty heavy lifting.”

The makeup of the new panel proposal would be basically the same as the current 13-member board. The members would include three members appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn, three appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and a chairman agreed upon by both. The current board was appointed in the same manner.

The primary reason for the interim board would be to scrutinize changes the MPEA has requested that would restructure its debt and extend various tax revenue streams that are due to expire in several years. There would be no time limit to the board’s work, although Currie expected they would not take long. “Instead of setting a deadline, we wanted them to do a thorough job,” she said. “Given the extent of the crisis, we expect things should be wrapped up quickly.”

Currie said the legislature wanted to be certain it knew everything about the status of McCormick Place and the Chicago trade show business before deciding on the MPEA’s proposal. “We don’t want to write them (MPEA) a blank check,” she said.

If Currie’s bill passes as expected, the new board will have its work cut out for itself. The MPEA proposal was greeted coolly by union leaders, who were not at the MPEA news conference and indicated in the media that they were not inclined to accept any major concessions.

“Labor has made three pretty major rounds of concessions over the last 15 years, but the savings don’t seem to be showing up (at the exhibitor level),” Currie said.

The Chicago Tribune described Currie as a “top lieutenant” of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who, like Currie, is a veteran Democratic representative from Chicago and whose own role and agenda in the McCormick Place drama has yet to emerge.

Reach Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie at (217) 782-8121 or www.barbaraflynncurrie.org/contact