Union members sit in the audience listening as union reps and contractors testify in front of the Joint Committee on the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority in early April of 2010. (Nancy Stone/ Chicago Tribune)
By Kathy Bergen | At a revamped McCormick Place, trade shows and their exhibitors could be
guaranteed a basic set of rights and show-floor work rules aimed at
cutting their costs, and the contractors and union workers who want the
right to work the shows would have to accept those terms.
At least that’s the legal concept behind the recommendations expected to
be issued this week or next by the state legislative committee studying
how to make Chicago’s convention business more competitive with
lower-cost rivals, according to a source close to the deliberations.
The House-Senate panel chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate Pres. John Cullerton, both Chicago Democrats, is hammering out its recommendations and the proposed legislation’s ultimate form is evolving.
But the current thinking calls for legislation that would define the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the state-city agency known as McPier that owns and operates the convention hall and Navy Pier, as a “market participant,” as opposed to a regulatory governmental agency, the source said.
“Because you are part of the [convention] market, you can impose rights and duties on those who want to have access to your property,” the source said.
Exhibitors’ rights likely will include greater ability to set up booths and displays, including the use of some power tools and ladders.
Show-floor labor rules likely will reduce the size of various work crews and the number of union stewards working the halls, while at the same time expanding the hours when workers would be paid straight time. That move would reduce time-and-a-half and double time pay.
These rules, at least in theory, would supersede terms in collective bargaining agreements between the two major show contractors — Freeman and Global Experience Specialists, or GES — and the unions that work the shows.
The “market participant” approach is being weighed as an alternative to making the unionized workers into public employees, an approach backed by Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Pat Quinn. As public employees, workers wouldn’t be able to engage in work stoppages. The aim would be to give McPier rather than the contractors the power to negotiate cost-saving work-rule changes.
Freeman and GES say the public employee approach could collectively cost them more than $65 million to withdraw from the workers’ pension funds.
The legislative package, as reported, is likely to create a trustee, or czar, to oversee the McCormick revamp. Observers say the most likely candidate is Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Jim Reilly, who is advising the House-Senate panel.
Reilly formerly served as McPier chief executive and headed the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, which books convention center business.
The state panel’s recommendations likely also will free exhibitors from exclusively using electrical and food-service providers. McPier’s profit margins on those services have kept the agency afloat.
To make up for the potential loss of that revenue, legislation likely will include an operating subsidy of about $20 million a year.