Carpenters union pickets Convention Center

Members of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters hold a protest rally outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center protest at N. Broad St. at Arch on Friday morning July 11, 2014. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Accompanied by a giant bejeweled inflatable "fat cat" squeezing a slightly deflated American construction worker, about 100 union Carpenters picketed outside the Convention Center on Friday morning.

High school English teacher Rehema Clarken wanted to hug them.

"Freedom of speech is such an amazing thing," said Clarken, of Michigan, who, now teaching in China, said she has a new appreciation for civil liberties in the United States.

Clarken, visiting the Convention Center for a gathering of 4,000 Advanced Placement teachers, had no clue why the Carpenters were picketing. She didn't know that the Carpenters, members of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters, were protesting their ousting from work at the center. They were joined by a smattering of Teamsters.

The two unions did not sign a customer satisfaction agreement by a May 5 deadline imposed by the center's management, but signed it a few days later.

"I wanted to go out and hug them and say, 'Thanks for being part of a union. Thanks for exercising your freedom of speech,' " Clarken said.

The protests she has seen in Beijing are different, she said. Plainclothes policemen are out in full force, videotaping protesters, some of whom are quickly ushered into waiting cars and taken away.

"It's somber," she said.

The protests come as the AP teachers wrap up their conference, sponsored by the College Board testing organization on Sunday. A gathering of 6,000 members of Omega Psi Phi, an African American college fraternity, began Wednesday at the Convention Center and ends next Friday.

Together, the two groups are booking hotel rooms for 15,870 nights and providing an estimated $19.6 million in economic impact, the Convention and Visitors Bureau said.

Martin O'Rourke, a spokesman for the Carpenters, said the protests will continue until the workers are allowed back into the center. Carpenters worked 160,000 hours a year at the center, their leaders said.

Management at the center has said that the building has functioned more smoothly without them.

At the protest, general foreman and union steward James Hocker of Williamstown said he had worked at the center for 14 years, the last three or four steadily, and hoped to return to work there soon.