Sweeping Labor Changes Proposed for McCormick Place

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Chicago, IL – A sweeping proposal to consolidate the unions at McCormick Place and turn their workers into public employees under the oversight of the convention center’s management was unveiled January 11. The goal was to lower costs.

The proposal would also authorize the agency to look at the books of contractors and show organizers to ensure that labor costs are accurately passed on to exhibitors. It would also exempt the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (MPEA) from any direct labor contracts between the unions and service contractors.

The five unions with jurisdiction over McCormick Place and Navy Pier would be condensed into three units. One unit would handle move-in and move-out work. The second would perform assembly tasks. The third would handle electrical work.

Industry Opposition
Exposition industry leaders quickly voiced their disapproval of the plan. [TSE will post that angle of the story soon.]

MPEA’s Rationale
MPEA Chairman John Gates said the changes, while radical, were needed quickly in order to get Chicago’s trade show business back on track. “Convention business in Chicago is at a crossroads,” he said. “The many stakeholders in Chicago’s vitally important convention industry must do what it takes to stay competitive and provide better value to customers.” Gates said the alternative was to “continue to operate at a competitive disadvantage.”

“By modernizing the work rules for a few hundred workers in one building, cutting management and increasing transparency, we can preserve and expand the 65,000 jobs that our industry supports,” said Gates.

McCormick Place offers 2.6 million square feet of prime exhibit space is No. 1 on Trade Show Executive‘s ranking of the World’s Top Convention Centers.

What’s Next?
The proposal will be introduced as a bill in the Illinois General Assembly. It was given weight by the presence of Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at a city hall news conference. A legislative timeline for the proposal and when it might become law was not immediately available.

A reporter from Crain’s Chicago Business noted that union leadership was not in attendance. Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon told Crain’s that the idea of auditing contractors was one that workers had supported for many years. He was not so certain about the idea of changing union members to public employees subject to a no-strike clause. “I need to run that up the flagpole with the unions,” Gannon said.

The plan was developed as a response to the announcement last Fall that two major trade shows would leave Chicago in 2012. Labor costs were cited by organizers as one of the reasons the shows were relocating.

The Plan
According to the MPEA, the proposal would:

– Establish MPEA as a public employer under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act. The MPEA would be authorized to negotiate contracts with show labor and prohibit strikes. Workers would have recourse through binding arbitration.

– The unions would be grouped in one of three groups: (1) The Move-in/Move-out Unit would perform dock work, freight movement and booth work related to machinery.  (2) The Assembly/Disassembly Unit would include workers involved in crating, assembly, flooring, carpeting, signage, draping and skirting. (3) The Electricians Unit would be made up of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134.

– The MPEA would not be subject to so-called area bargaining agreements negotiated between the unions and show contractors.

– The MPEA would be in charge of work rules and have “substantial oversight over the methods, means and personnel by which operations are conducted.” The goal would be to drastically simplify rules that have been a source of irritation among exhibitors.

– Contracts among show organizers, contractors and exhibitors could be audited by MPEA staff to ensure labor costs are reflected accurately and passed down to the exhibitors.

The proposal unveiled January 11 also would authorize the MPEA to restructure its debt to offset the strain created by the effects of the recession on trade show and convention revenues.

Reach John Gates at (312) 791-7500 or jgates@mpea.com; MPEA CEO Juan Ochoa at (312) 791-7500 or jochoa@mpea.com