Carpenters union finishes testimony to PLRB on ejection from Convention Center

Was the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority retaliating against the carpenters’ union when it distributed its work to other unions after the carpenters' leaders didn't sign a new agreement under a tight deadline in May 2014?

Oh, if only it were that simple.

Whatever happens with this week’s Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearings, the case will linger much longer. The most compelling issue will be whether the PLRB has jurisdiction. That hinges on whether the authority, a public entity, is a joint employer of union workers, including carpenters, when they install and dismantle shows at the center.

On Monday, PLRB hearing examiner Jack E. Marino urged both sides to appeal his ruling, whatever it is.

Preliminarily, Marino has ruled that the PLRB has jurisdiction because the authority is a joint employer. The facts and the jurisdictional issue can be appealed to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

“I don’t know what to do,” Marino said Monday, after the Convention Center’s lawyer, David L. Hackett, wanted him to dismiss the case. Marino said he’d hear all the facts, and then decide — first, whether to dismiss if the carpenters hadn’t made their case, and secondly, on who was right.

In 2013 and 2014, the Convention Center was losing business. Customers were canceling, saying labor cost too much and they couldn’t figure out which of the six unions at the center was supposed to do what job.

Exhibitors wanted to set up their own booths. But that work had been handled by union carpenters who were reluctant to give up the hours, and opposed changes. During that time, the carpenters went on two hours-long strikes over the issues.

None of that thrilled Convention Center officials or their customers, Monday’s first witness, Edward J. Coryell Jr., testified. Coryell Jr. was the carpenter union's representative at the Center.

The unions, Coryell Jr. said, had been negotiating the customer-satisfaction agreement Wednesday, April 30, 2014, when, at 2 a.m. Thursday, the unions, the Convention Center Authority, and SMG, the private company hired to manage the building, reached a tentative agreement: Exhibitors could use short ladders and do work that carpenters had done in larger booths, as long as they did not use power tools.

"Everybody clapped," Coryell Jr. testified.

Later Thursday morning, unions learned the Convention Center board rejected the deal. The carpenters went on strike Thursday afternoon for a few hours.

On Sunday, May 4, 2014, Coryell Jr. was told to check his email. When he did on Monday, it was a new agreement with "stuff we never discussed," Coryell Jr. testified. No bargaining — instead, there was a signing deadline: 11:59 p.m. on Monday, May 5. Neither Coryell Jr. nor his father, top union leader Edward J. Coryell Sr., signed the agreement on time, although other unions did.

On May 9, Coryell Sr. hand-delivered a signed agreement to John McNichol, the center’s chief executive, who did not accept it. By that time, the carpenters’ work — 150,000 to 200,000 hours a year — had been divided among other unions.

The union filed PLRB charges saying that they had been booted in retaliation for aggressively trying to retain work.

The center’s lawyers argued that the other unions signed promptly and that some provisions applied to all unions, so were not aimed at the carpenters.

“There’s no antiunion animus,” Hackett said. “Carpenters accepted and were willing to operate under the terms of the [agreement]. They just missed the deadline.” The Convention Center will present its witnesses on Tuesday.