A giant exhale at Philadelphia's Convention Center

Union workers in front of a dock at 11th Street, near Race, in Center City Philadelphia this morning. (Emily Babay / Staff)

Wednesday marks the start of the American Association of Diabetes Educators convention at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A week ago, it looked like the Educators were going to be schooled in what happens when managers and workers can't reach agreements on important issues.

Last Thursday, on Aug. 1, four of the six unions who work at the convention center went on strike, with a fifth not crossing the picket line in solidarity. By the end of the day, a truce was reached. And, as it turned out, the American Association of Diabetes Educators is enjoying a giant exhale, with some of the hot air moving out of the debate over the issue of exhibitor's rights.

The giant exhale equals an increase in wages and a year to study the existing customer service agreement, particularly the stumbling block of exhibitor's rights. It sounds very patriotic -- one of these overblown monikers -- but what it concerns is how much work individual exhibitors and their employees can do on their booths. That's what crashed Wednesday's negotiations at very end of three days of fruitful bargaining on many other issues.

As it stands now, and as it will remain for a year, at least informally, exhibitors and their employees can work on their own booths, providing they are smaller than 300 square feet. (Average booth sizes are 10 feet by 10 feet, or 10 by 20). Larger than 300, they need to use the unionized crew at the center. Chicago, a union town, has done away entirely with the square foot requirement, allowing exhibitors to set up their booths, no matter what the size. Other union convention centers actually limit exhibitors more.

The giant exhale provides an opportunity for some thoughtful consideration on the exhibitor issue, particularly when there are so many players angling for an advantage, as I reported last week.

The unions say they are happy that the Pennsylvania Convention Authority Board has chosen to hire an outside contractor, SMG, of West Conshohocken, to manage the center's day to day activities. SMG has experience running unionized halls and the unions want to give SMG a chance to apply their expertise to a facility that is beautiful, but not beautifully run, they say.

From a marketing standpoint, it might have been nice for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to be able to sell a new story about the management group and a new 10-year customer service agreement. But for the carpenters' union in particular, it's hard to swallow a provision that will cost, they say, 50 percent of their work hours. With those kinds of stakes, it's not surprising that the carpenters' union, in particular, pushed for last week's strike, despite the specter of negative publicity. From what I've heard, the American Association of Diabetes Educators provided an opportunity for some leverage -- leverage that would have been unavailable later due to the timing and scheduling of events at the center.

Maybe SMG will be able to resolve a long complaint from the unions -- that exhibition and production companies are over-charging their customers, groups like the diabetes educators, and blaming those charges on the unions., even if the unions weren't putting in anywhere near the hours being billed. Maybe SMG will be able to enforce existing provisions in the customer service agreement that would resolve many of the jurisdictional disputes that have hurt the center's reputation.

But, in the end, something will have to happen. As one board member told me, there are a lot of hotel maids living paycheck to paycheck who won't be getting those checks if the convention center can't attract the kind of large conventions that fill the city's hotels. Then, the board member said, the carpenters' share will go from 50 percent to zero.

The exhale, negotiated last Thursday, might be just what's needed. 

One other wrinkle remains -- the board and SMG have yet to ink their contract. If they do, maybe everyone will breathe easier.