Carpenters at Auto Show: Belligerent disruption or peaceful protest?

Members of the Carpenters Union protest outside the Philadelphia Convention Center during a black tie event for the Philadelphia Auto Show.

They just kept coming, the Convention Center's chief executive recalled, hundreds of carpenters bearing fliers and mischief.

In language typically reserved for swarming insects and invading marauders, John McNichol described "waves" of members of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters being unleashed on unsuspecting visitors Saturday at the 2015 Philadelphia Auto Show.

"They were in the face of exhibitors, they were in the face of our security," McNichol said. "They were belligerent. They were just being generally disruptive."

Not so, said Martin O'Rourke, a spokesman for the union. "They were observing their First Amendment rights to protest, and they were protesting peacefully, and that's the extent of it," he said.

The protest over the Carpenters' exclusion from a May contract to work at the Convention Center came on one of the busiest days in the Auto Show's 114-year history, McNichol said. More than 60,000 people attended Saturday.

Looming is a decision from the Democratic National Committee on whether to host its 2016 convention in Philadelphia.

Convention events would primarily be at the Wells Fargo Center, said U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), the Democratic City Committee's chair. The Carpenters union has an agreement ensuring jobs there and should be eager to see the convention in the city, he said.

"They would be spiting themselves, because there's a lot of work there," Brady said.

A decision on the event's host city could come within the next week, he said.

"I don't know just what had happened," Brady said. "There's always two sides to every story, and then there's the middle."

Saturday's protest led the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority to seek a restraining order Sunday. The order, signed by Common Pleas Court Judge Maria McLaughlin, bans union members from harassing or intimidating people trying to get into display cars, trying to "seize" display vehicles, or "stealing knobs and fuses, unhooking electronic harnesses, removing oil caps, and littering within exhibit vehicles."

The order is in effect until Wednesday, though the auto show ended Sunday.

The Carpenters and Teamsters Local 107 lost jurisdiction in the hall in a dispute over a customer-satisfaction agreement with the authority's board. McNichol said the union failed to sign the agreement. O'Rourke said the union signed the document but misunderstood the deadline for submission. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board upheld the Convention Center's position last week, though a written opinion is still pending.

The unions have maintained a steady protest against the Convention Center. Twelve to 15 events annually at the center require a major union presence, McNichol said.

Those events represent thousands of jobs to union carpenters, O'Rourke said.

The union members began appearing about 12:30 p.m. Saturday, McNichol said. They got into display vehicles and refused to get out for up to 15 minutes, he said. They shoved fliers between seams in car seats.

"Jamming them down in there, so you know that it's a hassle to get it out," McNichol said.

Car radios were turned up loud, McNichol said. Fuses got pulled.

The final display, he said, was a coordinated strip in which the protesters removed their jackets to reveal blue hoodies bearing the union logo.

"The carpenters were there to hand out leaflets," O'Rourke said.

The union members did not tamper with vehicles, he said. "People can just say anything," he said.

There was one benefit to the carpenters' presence at the Auto Show, McNichol said: They were all paying visitors.

"Ironically, they bought on the order of 200 tickets against their own boycott," he said.

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Inquirer staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.