The board of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority voted unanimously this morning to implement work rules that would let exhibitors set up their own booths, choose workers and foremen on union jobs, communicate directly with union workers, expand dispute resolution, and submit workers to a standard drug-testing program, despite the refusal of two of the six center unions, the Carpenters and Teamsters, to sign on to the agreement. Center directors say the changes are needed to lure more shows to the underused center and fill Center City hotel rooms.

The two unions have contracts to remain working at the center until May 10. In the meantime, center managers will be asking members of four other unions that approved the work rules -- Laborers, Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 98), Riggers and Stagehands -- to fill all jobs, including those that the Carpenters and Teamsters have worked up until now, board chairman Gregory Fox told me. Center chief executive John McNichol said he expected members of those four unions will likely report to work even if the two non-signing unions set up picket lines.

"We'll do whatever it takes to make the center more effective. We stand united with John McNichol. We need the business; we need this building packed," agreed Ryan N. Boyer, business manager for the Laborers District Council, the largest of the four unions that agreed to new work rules. Even if that means crossing other unions' picket lines? "Whatever it takes," Boyer repeated.

"This won't be the end of things. We won't be run out of this building and go away. That's not going to happen. I will do whatever's necessary to keep our members in this building," warned Carpenters secretary-treasurer Ed Coryell Sr. after interrupting a review of the new rules to protest the way the board plans to impose them.

Center managers claim the new work rules will bring more shows to the underused center, creating more work for union members. Labor at the center earns around $30 an hour and costs around $20 more in medical and retirement benefits, says center spokesman Pete Peterson.

Bob McClintock, an executive at SMG, the West Conshohocken firm that took over the center's management last fall, says the new rules are similar to those union members agreed to in Chicago and Detroit.

The Carpenters' Coryell has said he can't support rule changes that take work from his members; he says convention centers in New York and Washington have rules similar to Philadelphia's.

The Carpenters, the largest of the six unions working at the center, staged a brief strike May 1 that board members said had given them more reason to act quickly on the new rules, before labor strife became a reason for meeting planners to pull shows away from Philadelphia. Teamsters and IBEW leaders weren't immediately available for comment.

Coryell and the Laborers' Boyer, who are board members as well as union leaders, abstained on the board vote to approve the new work rules.

Heather Steinmiller, the director (representing Mayor Nutter) whose committee drafted the rules, said they were based on an 11-year-old proposal. She told the board she was sorry that the Carpenters and the Teamsters hadn't signed the agreement to work under the new work rules -- but added that she was "incredibly proud" the board agreed to go ahead anyway.

"It's a great day for us," Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, told me. "It is so important to our industry that we make radical changes. Meeting planners have been hearing things are going to improve here for 20 years," and the changes are overdue, he added. Grose credited the center's board, the unions that signed, and the team headed by SMG's McClintock, for finally moving forward on the changes.