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Convention Center hopes new work rules give competitive edge

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau had relentlessly pursued the organizers of the Lightfair International, trying to persuade them to hold their huge commercial-lighting trade show at the Convention Center.

Pennsylvania Convention Center's Market Street Entrance. (Reid Kanaley / Staff)
Pennsylvania Convention Center's Market Street Entrance. (Reid Kanaley / Staff)Read more

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau had relentlessly pursued the organizers of the Lightfair International, trying to persuade them to hold their huge commercial-lighting trade show at the Convention Center.

The show would be a big win for the city: $25 million in economic impact, 23,000 attendees, more than 13,000 nights in hotel rooms.

But it appeared that New York's Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center had a firm lock on Lightfair's show on the East Coast.

Then, finally, Philly's sales pitch worked.

"It was a coup when we got it," said Julie Coker Graham, executive vice president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. Lightfair switched to Philadelphia for its 2011 and 2013 shows.

What happened next illustrates the challenges and the opportunities facing the center as it tries with new work rules and procedures to overcome years of business losses due to complaints about labor costs and inefficiencies.

By the end of Lightfair's 2013 show, its organizers were so angry about Philadelphia's labor situation that the city lost the show, which returned to New York for 2015.

Now, Coker Graham said, the city is trying to use the changes in the work rules and Convention Center management to woo Lightfair and other formerly unhappy customers. "We are very confident that Lightfair will be even more successful if and when the show returns in the future," she said.

Lightfair officials had no comment.

"Our goal is to improve the productivity," said Robert McClintock, senior vice president of SMG, the West Conshohocken firm that took over the center's management in December.

Changes have occurred this year:

Because two of the six unions that had been working at the center failed to sign a new Customer Satisfaction Agreement by the May 5 deadline imposed by Convention Center management, there are fewer unions to coordinate.

Members of the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters, one of the two unions that lost jurisdiction, were among the highest paid. Now its work is being done by lower-paid union stagehands and laborers.

The new rules allow the trade-show producers to ask union halls to send particular union foremen and workers.

"They have been out there and performing at a very high level," McClintock said.

Lightfair's 2011 Philadelphia show was a success, topping New York in square footage on the floor and in the number of attendees.

But for the people who produced the show behind the scenes, the story was different, according to a report obtained by The Inquirer and generated by the company that produced Lightfair in New York in 2009 and in Philadelphia in 2011.

In square footage, Philadelphia's 2011 show was 15 percent larger than New York's 2009 show. So, it should have taken roughly 15 percent more worker-hours to set up and dismantle, said Ira Rosen, an assistant professor of tourism and hospitality at Temple University, who examined the report at The Inquirer's request.

Instead, it took 51 percent more worker-hours in Philadelphia - 19,723 to 13,055 in New York.

"That seems excessively high given the square footage, all other things being equal," Rosen said.

The report made other comparisons:

It took 4,000 overtime hours to produce the show in New York but 9,337 overtime hours in Philadelphia.

There was one foreman-hour for every 7.2 worker-hours during setup in Philadelphia, compared with one foreman-hour for every 41.3 worker-hours in New York.

In New York, union carpenters and carpenters apprentices took 8,389 hours to set up and tear down the show. In Philadelphia, union carpenters and laborers from another union took 11,488 hours.

In Philadelphia, the report describes worries about work stoppages to resolve disputes over union jurisdictions and fears that workers would slow up on straight time so they could earn overtime.

In New York, show contractors can ask for particular union foremen. In Philadelphia, contractors could call particular foremen from laborers, stagehands, and electricians' unions, but not from the Carpenters union.

Instead, leaders of the Carpenters union decided who and how many foremen would work, McClintock said.

In Philadelphia, McClintock said, contractors couldn't tell union carpenters directly to hang a sign, for example. Instead, the contractor would have to find a carpenter foreman who would talk to the worker, slowing the job.

That has changed now, McClintock said.

To be sure, there are extenuating circumstances.

Martin O'Rourke, spokesman for the Carpenters union, said the contractor's report unfairly denigrates Philadelphia's union carpenters.

They could have always, for example, sought specific foremen, but when they did, they always seemed to ask for someone who was retired, he said.

O'Rourke agreed that changes in the work rules will help the center. That's why, he said, the carpenters signed the agreement, albeit several days past management's deadline.

Rosen said some problems might have been the producers' fault.

"It's how you treat labor," he said. "If you treat people nicely and fairly, you get more leeway than if you treat them like the village idiots."