Sorry, It's Not My Job
by Jonathan Valania | Illustrations by Jay Bevenour
So you've heard there's some kind of trouble over at the Convention
Center. Union price gouging, fistfights, cursing, political power grabs, lawsuits
heading to the state Supreme Court. Sounds kinda exciting,
doesn't it? Kinda like a pirate ship. Like something you should be keeping up
on. Because, after all, convention business is one of the primary engines pulling
the city's train, providing 44,000 jobs and pumping $2.6 billion into the local
economy. But every time you try to read yet another
of the bazillion Convention Center articles pumped out by our two well-meaning
dailies, your eyes glaze over, right? Same here. And
that's why we read through every one of those bazillion articles: so you don't
have to. What follows is PW's Convention Center
Guide for Dummies. Please try to pay attention and look up any of the big words
you don't understand.
1993 the $523 million Pennsylvania Convention Center opens. A beautiful,
gigantic facility is born with just one flaw: It might not be gigantic enough.
In the convention business, size does indeed matter, and within 10 years it
will be determined that it will cost another $464 million to make it gigantic
enough. Actually, there's one other critical flaw: the Byzantine, Soviet-era,
how-many-Teamsters-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb labor model from the
old Civic Center. Six different labor shops--each seemingly playing by its own
hard-ass rules and ballooning price structures--rule the roost in the new Convention
Center, which on a bad day resembles a cockfight. Under this model, it's nearly
impossible for an exhibitor is to put up a booth larger than 100 square feet
without using union labor. And doing it yourself is permitted only if you don't
use any tools.
1994 the unions and Convention Center management iron out labor guidelines to
make the facility more user-friendly. Overtime pay is reduced from
double-time to time-and-a-half, and the minimum labor call is reduced--meaning
if an exhibitor has only one hour of work, he pays for just four hours of work
instead of the once- mandatory eight. The unions hail these changes as "major
concessions." The Convention Center also starts "sensitivity training" to remind
workers not to swear so much or wear cutoff T-shirts emblazoned with obscenities
... and for God's sake, man, cover up that butt crack!
the f-word being replaced with the more benign "friggin'" and an all-around
pulling up of pants, things continue to go from bad to worse. By 1998
Philadelphia earns the distinction of having the second-highest convention center
labor costs in the country, just behind San Francisco. If you've ever spent
a few days in Frisco's wallet-Hoovering economy, you
know what an impressive accomplishment this is. Labor pricing and inefficiency
become major issues in Philly three years later when the East Coast Volleyball
Association, a nonprofit organization, documents that it took six union laborers
and a couple plumbers two hours to set up a volleyball court. The association
notes that the job takes eight 14-year-old girls one hour in any other facility.
It costs the volleyball group $135,000 to hold an event in Philadelphia that
usually averages $15,000 in other cities. They won't be coming back.
addition to the profanity and price gouging, fistfighting becomes another unwelcome
add-on cost of union labor services. In 1998 Steven "the Gorilla" Mondevergine,
leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pagans motorcycle club and a member
of the carpenters' union, makes headlines when he gets into fisticuffs with
the cops inside the Center. In August 2000 someone shoots the Gorilla six times
in the face and body. None of the girls' volleyball players are considered suspects.
In November 2002 a 6-foot-7 carpenter named James "Big Jack" Giovinetti walks
up to Ed Coryell Jr., the head carpenters' union official at the Convention
Center. He shouts, "Where's my fucking money?" then punches Coryell square in
the face. Giovinetti is led from the Convention Center in handcuffs.
then there's the leadership--which at the Convention Center is like that scene
in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen jumps into a bullet-riddled foxhole and
asks a soldier who's in charge. And the soldier shoots back with, "Ain't you?"
In the summer of 2002 Robert Williams, the former Convention Center CEO, somehow
gets by on $1,500 a day. When belt-tightening time comes around soon after,
he agrees to work for a paltry $20,000 a month, which isn't so bad considering
he's living in a $3,800-a-month apartment at the Phoenix on the taxpayer's dime.
Williams' comped expenses were never actually approved by the Convention Center
board. Instead they were rubberstamped by Williams' buddy, Bernard Watson, former
chairman of the Convention Center board. Watson never bothered to actually live
here in Philadelphia when he chaired the board, so taxpayers were socked with
the $10,161 it cost to fly him back and forth from his home in Sarasota, Fla.,
on several occasions between April 2001 and December 2002 for board meetings.
convention centers shoot for a return booking rate of 50 percent--meaning conventioneers
and trade-show representatives had a pleasant experience and want to come back.
At the Pennsylvania Convention Center the return rate is now 15 percent.
To address all these issues, the Convention Center commissions a $125,000 study
by Econsult Corporation. The results, which were released last June, strongly
recommend that the Convention Center adopt a single-source labor model--meaning
that a union worker would not only set up a table, but he could also put the
tablecloth on it instead of having to wait around for a rep from the tablecloth
union. Mayor Street likes this idea, and by September 2002 he's convinced five
of the six affected unions to agree to it. The lone holdout is the carpenters'
union, which feels very strongly that having one union worker put up a table
and put the tablecloth on it is taking food out of the mouths of union
we're in the home stretch here, but pay attention, because this is where it
gets fast and weird. With negotiations to get the carpenters' union
to sign the new labor agreement in a free fall, and Ed Rendell, the newly elected
Democratic governor just months away from taking power, state House Republican
Majority Leader John Perzel stages a middle-of-the-night power grab, pushing
through a bill on Thanksgiving Eve 2002 that puts the Convention Center under
state control. This is widely seen as a political move to embarrass Mayor Street
in an election year. Others say Street got what he had coming for playing patty-cake
with the carpenters' union when he should have been playing hardball. But then
again, how tough could Street be on the carpenters' union after they donated
$50,000 to his reelection campaign?
last month, the new state-mandated Convention Center board appoints Street foes
Michael Nutter and Albert Mezzaroba as chairman and CEO, respectively. Neither
has any hospitality industry experience. In a show of support for Street,
newly sworn-in Gov. Ed Rendell responds by refusing to allocate any state money
to the proposed $464 million Convention Center expansion. Partisan politics
aside, Rendell is protecting his legacy. After all, it's the Rendell Miracle
that's being squandered over at the Convention Center.
Street sues the governor's office to nullify the state takeover. The
Commonwealth Court rules in Street's favor, but the ruling comes with an automatic
stay, giving the state more time to reassert control over the Convention Center.
Another judge overrules the stay, returning the reigns once again to the city.
The case is now before the state Supreme Court, and in the meantime nobody--save
a few bearded legal scholars in flowing robes--is really quite sure who the
hell is in charge of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
projected citywide convention bookings--conventions big enough to take up 2,000
hotel rooms--will be down nearly 50 percent by 2008, and projected hospitality
revenues will be down by almost $100 million. And even the sunniest projections
indicate it will only get worse. This is bad, people. Very, very bad.