Judge Halts McCormick Place Convention Reforms in Chicago

Three months after he ruled them illegal, a federal judge has ordered Chicago's McCormick Place convention center to cease implementing cost-saving labor reforms that were passed in May 2010 by the Illinois state Legislature.

On March 31, U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman concluded that state lawmakers violated the collective bargaining rights of unions when it enacted landmark convention reforms last year. The ruling was a response to a lawsuit filed by two unions — the Teamsters and Carpenters — alleging that the state had overstepped its authority when it passed a series of reforms impacting the production of trade shows at McCormick Place. According to the unions, the National Labor Relations Act prohibits state legislatures from enacting changes to collective bargaining agreements between unions and private companies.

Although he ruled them illegal in March, Guzman stopped short of issuing an injunction against reforms. In a follow-up ruling issued on June 22, however, he said McCormick Place cannot continue implementing reforms while there are legal challenges pending against them.

"These cases involve a conflict between two powerful public interests," Guzman wrote in his opinion. "However, it seems to the court that the public interest is best served by eliminating the uncertainty that has surrounded the statute since its enactment, a goal that cannot be achieved until these cases are resolved on appeal."

State convention officials have, in fact, vowed to appeal, and already have asked the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for a stay while it presents its case against Guzman's ruling.

"Chicago's convention industry is an extremely important economic engine," reads a statement issued by the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (MPEA), the agency that runs McCormick Place. "Much positive development has occurred since the reforms were put in place, and with so much to gain and so much more to lose, we are confident that we will be able to achieve a long-term solution that will ensure the vitality of Chicago's visitor industry."

According to Reuters, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent a letter to trade show organizers in advance of Guzman's June ruling, promising that "one way or another, you have our word that McCormick Place, Chicago and Illinois will not back down from the changes in practices at the center which you asked for and which we delivered."

Passed in May 2010 and implemented on Aug. 1, 2010, McCormick Place's Phase I convention reforms included: standardized and expanded straight-time, overtime and double-time windows; expanded exhibitor rights; changes to the in-house electrical contractor; a new automobile and small utility vehicle policy; reduced crew sizes; and reduced food prices.

Initiated in November, Phase II reforms included free Wi-Fi throughout the convention center; reduced parking rates; new rules allowing companies to compete to provide electrical services for trade shows; and new rules allowing exhibitors to bring outside food into the convention center for consumption by employees.

Guzman's ruling questions the ability of exhibitors to set up their own booths, as well as the expanded straight-time window for paying union labor. It does not impact reforms making food and electrical prices more competitive.