How Philly's carpenters got tossed from the Pa. Convention Center

Union officials lead their members past a picket line set up at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. In front is John Dougherty, who heads IBEW Local 98. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff photographer)

The moment was stunning in Philadelphia labor history.

Not only did dozens of union workers cross a picket line set up on May 12, 2014, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, but they were led across the line by their own leaders.

“I cannot recall an instance like it,” said Bob McClintock, senior vice president of convention services for SMG, the West Conshohocken firm that began to manage the center in 2013. McClintock oversees 75 union and nonunion centers nationally.

John Dougherty, the politically connected leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, walked in first. Right behind him was Michael Barnes, leader of the stagehands' union. Then came workers, marching past union carpenters and Teamsters who had lost their right to work there a few days earlier. 

As big as Philadelphia is, it’s small – and clannish – and people know each other for decades. So for unions to break the picket lines was an epic moment, particularly considering the well-known rivalry between Dougherty and longtime Carpenters leader Edward J. Coryell Sr.

In two days of testimony last week before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, some of the story was told – by Dougherty, Barnes, and Ryan Boyer, who heads the Laborers' union, and by Coryell’s son, Edward  Jr., who was his father’s point man at the center. McClintock and John McNichol, the center's chief executive, also testified.

After the carpenters lost their right to work in the building, the union filed an unfair-practice charge with the PLRB, saying the center forced them out in retaliation for seeking to protect their members' work, including two legal strikes in less than a year. The authority has denied that.

A decision will take months and will likely be appealed. 

Nervous about the strikes, trade associations that had reserved the center years in advance canceled bookings, McNichol testified. Labor costs were too high, they complained. Disputes among the six unions, and between unions and exhibitors, were a constant hassle. And the center’s pre-SMG management could not fix the problem.

At stake was the success of the Convention Center, the largest public-works project in state history. Many thousand hotel and restaurant workers rely on convention bookings for their paychecks.

Consider the impact of one convention: The American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery’s annual meeting, set for 2022, will draw 13,000 visitors who will spend 37,359 nights in hotel rooms and generate a projected $40 million in economic impact. That same group had canceled its 2008 and 2012 conventions here after it had problems in 2002.

Such problems had been common since the facility opened in 1993. What saved the center was the city's popularity with attendees, who liked its walkability, the proximity of hotels and restaurants, and easy transit from New York and Washington.

In 2003, management and unions drafted a 10-year customer satisfaction agreement that delineated union jurisdictions and included a review process. At the last minute, management imposed a deadline for unions to sign.

How last-minute was the deal? Barnes said former Mayor John Street and Patrick Gillespie, then the head of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council and an authority board member, showed him the agreement at a Jersey diner and gave him an hour to read and sign it. 

While well-intended, the agreement didn’t work. “It had become stale,” McNichol testified. “Enforceability was in question.”

As customers fled, vowing never to return, negotiations to update the pact stalled in 2013. The unions agreed to an extension, but not before the carpenters held a one-day strike on Aug. 1, 2013. The American Association of Diabetes Educators, then installing its convention, finished its show and promptly canceled future bookings.

They were not alone, McNichol said. “Due to the incestuous nature” of the business, cancellations became contagious. Hotel managers were alarmed, he said.  

As the April 2014 extension deadline approached, negotiations got serious. By 5 p.m. April 30, five of the six unions, bargaining at IBEW Local 98’s hall on Spring Garden Street, had reached an accord with McNichol and McClintock on a new customer satisfaction agreement.

But not the carpenters, who had the most to lose.

In negotiations, McNichol and McClintock pushed an “exhibitors’ rights” agenda, popular in the convention industry. Exhibitors’ booth fees underwrite the costs of conventions, so making them happy matters.

In Chicago, exhibitors had unlimited rights to set up their booths. In Philadelphia, carpenters did that work and neither Coryell nor his son believed the change would draw enough new business to offset lost hours.

Coryell Jr. had been handling negotiations. As evening melted into night, his father stopped by to voice his objections. After he left, Coryell Jr. resumed separate talks with McNichol and McClintock, working through about 25 items, as the other union leaders waited.

The men emerged at about 2 a.m., May 1, tired, but smiling. “We shook hands. We were pretty happy,” Coryell Jr. testified. The deal? Carpenters would still construct large booths, but exhibitors could set up small and medium-sized booths, as long as they didn’t use power tools or anything higher than a stepladder.

Coryell testified that he and other union leaders believed they had a deal. McNichol and McClintock testified that they said they needed board approval. All agreed to reconvene at Local 98 later that morning, around 10 a.m. or noon, to give the lawyers time to draw up documents.

The board did not approve the deal. “They said it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t send the right message” to disgruntled customers, McNichol said.

McNichol said he came to Local 98's union hall to plead for more negotiations. While there, he saw James R. Hocker, a top carpenters’ union official, leave. Then, he said, the other unions asked him to step outside so they could caucus. While waiting, McNichol said he learned the carpenters were already striking.

“I was there to propose, `Let’s keep talking,’ when I was interrupted by a strike,” he testified.

Coryell Jr. said the strike started later in the day. Either way, by Thursday night, it was over.

The carpenters’ hours-long strike caused such consternation, McNichol said, that by Sunday morning, the center had drawn up a new customer satisfaction agreement, undoing some changes negotiated with Coryell Jr. Exhibitors would now be allowed to use power tools.

The authority gave the six unions 36 hours to sign it, by 11:59 p.m. Monday, May 5. Four did, but not the carpenters and not the Teamsters, whose leaders were out of town at their national convention.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 6, the board met at the center to ratify the agreement. Board members Ryan Boyer from the Laborers’ union, which signed, and Coryell Sr., who did not, attended. Many board members urged Coryell to sign, McNichol and Boyer testified. Boyer said Coryell fully understood the consequences – that the carpenters would lose their work.

“It was unfortunate,” McNichol said. “He made it very clear to everyone in the room that he had no intention of signing."

A few days later, Coryell Sr. hand-delivered a signed agreement, but McNichol would not accept it, McNichol said, describing the exchange as "very cordial, very professional."

By then, the carpenters’ work had been divided among the other unions. The carpenters worked a few more days until their wage-and-hour contract expired May 10. Then they were out. 

On May 12, the other unions crossed the picket line. Pickets, protests, leafletting, and litigation ensued, but carpenters never returned for trade-show work. Eventually, the Teamsters got back in as SMG employees who did not need to sign the customer satisfaction agreement.

The convention industry reacted quickly - and positively - to the new agreement. In the first six months, McNichol said, they had a “record-setting pace of bookings” – 28 meetings and events booked for future years. “To get to people to book on that trajectory is really extraordinary.”

Last week, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that it had its highest booking year ever in 2016, up 18.2 percent in the number of events over 2015. In 2016, the bureau booked 713 events using 903,199 hotel rooms in future years, contributing $1.3 billion to the region's economy.

"As our center, our labor unions and SMG continue to cultivate a strong customer-focused environment," said the bureau's chief executive, Julie Coker Graham, "Philadelphia can continue to look forward to a robust convention calendar for years to come."