Why the Convention Center peace talks failed with the carpenters and how they could rise again

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The Convention Center has been at odds with the carpenters union since 2014. Recently, there have been signs of a thaw.

No one was singing "Kumbaya," but for a few weeks this fall, it looked as if the carpenters union and the Convention Center had reached a detente that would have allowed union members, ousted since May 2014, to work in the building. There was even a rough outline for how it would go.

But now it's off the table.

“The conversations did not work out, which is certainly unfortunate,” said John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. “We’ll let the courts make the decisions. We’re still hopefully optimistic that we could work with the Convention Center.”

The situation is so fraught with consequences that many people would not talk on the record. But they did lay out a scenario for how the talks progressed and why they ended.

One of the few who spoke was Nicholas DeBenedictis, chairman of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, who said a rapprochement was being discussed by the Convention Center board.

“I think the concern is how it will affect our booking conventions,” he said. “Unfortunately, the old rumors are still there.

“My thinking is time heals all wounds,” he said. “There are different carpenters, different leadership.” 

Other factors are mounting legal exposure, some disenchantment with center working conditions, and the ambitions of John Dougherty, who heads both the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.

Key moments will come next month. A carpenter source suggests that the center could face $24 million in back pay if it loses an unfair labor practice charge case before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. This is the case, now set for Dec. 21, in which the center accused the hearing examiner of being too politically influenced to sit in judgment. The examiner kept himself on the case. 

The federal judge in a civil racketeering suit filed by the center against the carpenters has been pressing for details on talks, a board member said. She had stayed the case until Dec. 31.

For years, convention bookings had declined, with meeting planners and exhibitors blaming the cost and hassle of dealing with six unions and especially the carpenters, who were seen as inflexible.

Center officials addressed these concerns in May 2014 with a new customer satisfaction agreement that gave exhibitors more leeway. But carpenters’ leader Edward J. Coryell declined to sign the agreement immediately. He signed a few days later, but by then, the carpenters were out and their work, all 167,879 hours of it in 2013, had been distributed among other unions.

In a stunning moment in local labor history, those other unions crossed the carpenters’ picket line, led by their unions’ top officials, including Dougherty, a Coryell rival.

The carpenters relentlessly picketed and filed unfair labor practice charges. During the 2015 Philadelphia Auto Show, union members crashed the gate and were accused of vandalizing exhibits. In May 2015, the center responded by filing a federal racketeering suit against the union.

Then, somehow, a thaw began.

Coryell’s council supported State Sen. Anthony H. Williams for mayor, but the carpenters’ council in New Jersey donated to the campaign of Mayor Kenney, who was strongly backed by Dougherty. The Jersey union, now led by Ballantyne, had been led by Frank Spencer of Haddonfield, who is a national union executive and remains influential in local politics.

In November 2015, Dougherty was chosen to lead the Philadelphia Building Trades Council. Carpenters are one of the city’s largest trades but weren’t council members. Taking them back into the council would increase its finances and influence, along with Dougherty’s reach.

“I believe there’s room for the carpenters in the center,” Dougherty said. “There are certain things the carpenters do that can’t be replicated.”   

In February, the international forced Coryell's retirement. Ballantyne took control. He quickly transferred Coryell’s son, Edward Jr., a union official, to northern New Jersey, away from the Convention Center, where he had been blamed, in part, for its toxic atmosphere.

In July, the trades worked peacefully to build the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center. The carpenters withdrew pickets. Ballantyne attended a Building Trades Council meeting. Convention Center board member Heather Steinmiller met informally with Frank Spencer and Tricia Mueller, the carpenters union’s political director. Both sides sought delays in legal proceedings, signaling talks underway.  

Inside the building, the atmosphere was cheerier in the post-carpenter days. Bookings were up.

But there were complaints. As friendly and willing as the stagehands were, “I’d rather have the carpenters,” said a longtime contractor. “They are skilled labor. The carpenters were misguided by the leadership, and the leadership team was misguided. Now, that whole hard-knock, gritty attitude is gone.”

The contractor, who didn’t want to be named because he didn’t want to offend his stagehand workers, runs an “install-and-dismantle” business and is hired by companies to set up their displays in shows around the country. Many “I-and-D” contractors employ a regular traveling crew of union carpenters. Under the current customer-satisfaction agreement, those carpenters were not allowed to pick up a hammer at the center, but a few could be nonworking supervisors.

The rapprochement would have allowed them and regular crews of “I-and-D” carpenters to work. However, carpenters would not have been included, as they once were, in the center’s general workforce. The other unions have those jobs as part of the customer-satisfaction agreement.

The carpenters wanted more of their work back, several sources said. And that's why the talks fell apart.   

As far as the city’s tourism industry is concerned, that’s good news.

“We’re coming off a very successful summer with eight citywide conventions,” said Julie Coker Graham, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The success of the Convention Center is great. We’re riding that momentum. What I would say: The center is working and we need to stay on that course.”