Changes in the union workforce at the Convention Center have dramatically lowered the cost of putting on an event there, an internal analysis shows.

The report compares labor hours and the number of people working at this year's landmark Philadelphia Auto Show with last year's show, finding that lower costs and more efficiency yielded a 20 percent savings on the show's labor bill.

"We were ecstatic," said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, considering the attendance, the savings, and what he sees as a positive shift in attitude after union carpenters were replaced by union stagehands in May 2014.

"You couldn't be happier as a show manager to hear that people on the floor are being treated well, that the workers are actively engaged and happy to be there, and they are being efficient and doing a good job," said Michael Gempp, who directs the show for the auto dealers.

The carpenters' spokesman dismissed those reports as a "pathetic public relations stunt by the Convention Center to deceive the public by trying to put a positive spin on a bad and deteriorating situation."

For 20 years, convention planners have griped about featherbedding, uncooperative workers, and high costs at the center, laying much of the blame on union carpenters and the center's management that failed to correct the problems.

These days, most complaints have disappeared, along with stories of planners vowing never to hold another meeting in Philadelphia.

They have been replaced by laudatory testimonials marketed by the center's new outside management firm, SMG, which took over in December 2013, a month before the 2014 Philadelphia Auto Show.

While pleasant, those testimonials have been just that - anecdotal tales absent real comparative data - until now.

Unlike most conventions, which may rotate through the center once or twice a decade, the auto show happens yearly, and, for the most part, is the same, making Chevy-to-Chevy comparisons possible.

2014 vs. 2015

What those comparisons show, according to Convention Center and car-dealer records reviewed by  The Inquirer, is a 20 percent drop in labor costs from 2014 to 2015.

The dealers' association declined to give dollar amounts, but data on the number of workers and the hours they worked tell the story. Hours fell 17.6 percent, and there were 13.3 percent fewer workers, with most work now being done by the stagehands.

"Their numbers are highly questionable and just don't add up," said Martin O'Rourke, spokesman for the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters.

O'Rourke disagreed with Mazzucola and his team's assertion that the show was the same size. O'Rourke described it as "structurally smaller than last year's, so of course you'd have a smaller workforce."

In May 2014, union stagehands took over the carpenters' work when the Carpenters' Union lost jurisdiction in the building after the carpenters' leader, Edward J. Coryell failed to sign a new customer satisfaction agreement by a management-imposed deadline.

To Mazzucola, the changes have implications that go beyond the show. The association estimates that the show influences $2.5 billion in automotive sales in the local market - and the more people who attend, the greater the influence.

The wage factor

Attendance is driven by the quality and complexity of exhibits. Carmakers are more likely to present exhibits if they know it is cost-effective and easy to set them up.

Separately, auto companies may decide to hold their own national dealer shows in Philadelphia, bringing yet more business to hotels and restaurants.

A big part of the lowered costs can be attributed to wages. Union stagehands, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, earn about 18 percent less per hour than union carpenters.

But it also took the stagehands much less time to set up and dismantle the show this year than it did in 2014, when union carpenters made up most of the labor force, the report shows.

In 2014, workers took 30,523 hours to install, dismantle, and maintain the Philadelphia Auto Show.

In 2015, the same show took 25,133 hours, for a difference of 5,390 hours, or about 17.7 percent.

In 2014, 3,286 people worked the show; this year there were 436 fewer, or 2,850, a difference of 13.3 percent.

"It's a culmination," said Lorenz Hassenstein, SMG's general manager, who now runs the center. "It's the [workers'] willingness to do the work. It's the management of SMG. It's the communication before the show comes in. It's not just the labor rate."

Why did it take so many hours in the past?

The carpenters required contractors to employ nonworking stewards and foremen and sometimes insisted that contractors bring on more workers than needed, said two longtime contractors, hired by exhibitors who set up displays at the show.

"We called it Philly math," one said. "If we needed eight, we'd tell them six, and they'd require eight."

The contractors declined to be identified by name or company because even though the carpenters are out at the Convention Center, their leader, Coryell, also directs union carpenters at the convention center in Washington, where many contractors also work.

Another contractor, who also declined to be named because he feared retribution from SMG, had a different view.

In his experience, he said, the carpenters' union foremen and stewards worked alongside the crews, with the steward making sure the same carpenters who set up displays returned to tear them down, making the work more efficient.

At this year's Auto Show, "everything [seemed] like it moved in slow motion," he said.

Not attendance.

With 252,487 buying tickets, the 2015 show, previewing Jan. 30 and closing Feb. 8, was the second-best-attended event in the show's history.

On Feb. 7, a Saturday record was set with 60,786 visiting the center to look at 700 cars.

About 200 of the ticket buyers were union carpenters who allegedly caused a ruckus, jamming leaflets into cars, sitting in cars and refusing to get out, and removing knobs and caps from the cars.

The Convention Center applied for and received an injunction against the carpenters, whose spokesman described the event as a "peaceful protest."

Although the Convention Center filed a civil suit against the union, no criminal complaints or charges have been filed, a police spokeswoman said.

While the report provides the big picture, it also drills down into smaller details.

For example, in 2014, it took 278 carpenters working 2,447 hours to lay 525,000 square feet of carpet. In 2015, a crew of 188 - mostly stagehands - spent 2,048 hours doing the same work. That's 90 fewer people working 399 fewer hours.

"Last year they were kicking the carpet down 10 minutes before the people came in," Hassenstein said. "This year, they were done in the morning. Instead of rushing to get things done, everyone was casually going through the final touches."

BY THE NUMBERS

278

Number of carpenters it took to lay 525,000 square feet of carpet for the 2014 Philadelphia Auto Show.

188

Number of workers, mostly stagehands, it took to lay the same amount of carpet in 2015, a 32% decrease.

2,447

Hours it took to lay

the carpet in 2014.

2,048

Hours it took in 2015,

a 16% decrease.

EndText

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