|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 14, 2012--With just a year left on their 10-year customer-satisfaction agreement, intended as a framework for a more conciliatory and productive working relationship between labor unions and the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, relations seem more strained than ever before.
Labor leaders said Wednesday that they have been taken aback by recent complaints by the city's hoteliers that union issues -- including allegations of theft, discourtesy, and inflated costs -- were making booking the Convention Center more difficult and preventing large events from planning return engagements there.
Some pointed charges of union workers' misbehavior were leveled specifically by organizers of last year's True Value convention and outlined to The Inquirer late last week.
"You're talking to the people who took to all kinds of steps to make sure that the center functions in an effective and proper manner," Pat Gillespie, business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, said Wednesday. "Ten years ago, we came up with the agreement and asked for outside review from a business perspective.
"We have been asking ever since for effective, pre-convention and post-convention meetings that are described in the agreement, and just never had them," he said.
John J. Dougherty, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, which represents 4,500 members and installs electricity for Convention Center shows, called misguided the comments by the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association that high labor costs were driving away key group business.
"This is another disingenuous representation by the upper management of the Convention Center to cover up their inefficiencies," Dougherty said. "I consider everyone in the building a partner in growing jobs and the economy, not only for Philadelphia, but the region."
And that, he said, includes Center City hoteliers, the majority of whom signed off on a May 22 letter sent to the Convention Center Authority's 15 members, blaming the unions for slow group bookings at the expanded facility. The Inquirer obtained a copy of the letter, in which the hotel association said True Value and other groups were not returning to the city because of high labor costs and unpleasant overall experiences.
"I have no problem with them," Dougherty said of the hotels. "Our pension fund is vested in a few of them. We consider them a friend. Obviously, they are being sold a bill of goods by someone in the center."
In an e-mail response to Dougherty's comments, the authority's board chairman, Gregory J. Fox, said: "The Convention Center Board and management are very appreciative of the working relationship we have with our union partners in implementing changes designed to improve the customer experience and reduce costs. We are not interested in assigning blame and are committed to working cooperatively with all of our stakeholders to continue to build on the remarkable progress we have made in recent months."
Added Fox: "We are all in this together, and it is vital that we continue to work as a united team toward our goal of making this the premier facility in the nation."
The $786 million expansion of the Convention Center that opened in March 2011 was partially paid for by an increase in the city hotel tax, from 14 percent to 15.2 percent.
A planned Wednesday meeting between the authority's leadership and the hotel association to discuss the letter was postponed because of scheduling conflicts, said the hotel group's executive director, Ed Grose, but is being rescheduled. The issue also is to be taken up at next Wednesday's Convention Center Authority board meeting.
Grose said Fox reached out to his group earlier this week to begin a dialogue on solutions to the labor and customer-service issues.
"We welcome any type of constructive criticism or feedback for opportunities for improvement going forward," said authority spokesman Pete Peterson. "On the pre-meeting side, we recently expanded that effort by making it more focused on the unions and more collaborative.
"We hope to build on that success by working on additional post-conference meetings that are more productive from their [union's] perspective," Peterson said. "We're looking to do that now."
Dougherty and Gillespie said they had pushed for years for pre- and post-convention meetings -- which, they said, could have prevented the incidents True Value organizers said occurred at its show in September. But, the union leaders said, their requests have largely fallen on deaf ears at the Convention Center Authority.
Susan Katz, director of corporate events and travel for the 5,000-member hardware-store cooperative, said her group's Philadelphia gathering went anything but smoothly. She complained of several problems with the unions, ranging from slow setups, to tools and other equipment stolen from the exhibit floor during the show's teardown, to inflated costs associated with having to deal with multiple unions for basic functions.
That, Katz said, led to her group's canceling its planned 2015 gathering here and putting plans for a 2019 show in Philadelphia on hold.
The union leaders have denied Katz's theft allegations.
On Wednesday, Dougherty said the last time he met with Ahmeenah Young, Convention Center Authority president and CEO, was in November 2009. Things didn't go well, he said, when he brought up the need to clean up the customer-service agreement and for Young to better enforce it.
"That was the last we were in the same room together," Dougherty said. "To be honest with you, if we had meetings and communication, we would have known . . . learned firsthand about True Value."
Young did not return several calls seeking comment.
In contrast to True Value's complaints, Dougherty and Gillespie said, two large shows at the Convention Center in the last year, Lightfair International and the American Diabetes Association conference that ended Tuesday, went off without a hitch.
"The irony is organized labor and the people I represent don't work when that building has no convention in it," Gillespie said. "It is in our utmost interest to get as many conventions as we possibly can get, and we have taken major steps through the course of history . . . to make sure we are as productive as we can possibly be."
Dougherty said the center was poorly managed.
"I cried for privatization of the utilities," he said. "I have been crying for 15 years that we should have a professional private company running the facility, like Comcast-Spectacor or SMG," a nationally known convention management firm based in Conshohocken. Contact Suzette Parmley
at 215-854-2594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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