Chicago Seeks Convention Labor Reforms

Setting into motion sweeping changes to labor work rules at McCormick Place and convention contracting in Chicago, state and city officials this month proposed legislation they hope will lower costs and lure big meeting planners back to the city.

After losing two major conventions in November to what planners deemed to be more affordable locales, Illinois governor Pat Quinn and Chicago mayor Richard Daley this month introduced legislation in the state's general assembly "to reform labor rules and contractor practices that have hindered Chicago's ability to win and retain major convention and trade show business."

The proposed legislation would establish the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates McCormick Place and Navy Pier, as a public employer under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, thereby bringing convention labor groups, including contractors responsible for move-in, setup, show services and breakdown of expos "under the oversight of MPEA."

That move would prohibit labor strikes, while reducing the number of unions representing show services from five to three—a change that MPEA said would allow work groups to "operate more efficiently and transparently for customers."

The legislation also would free MPEA from its current agreements with contractors and unions, enabling it to "negotiate show labor agreements with new value, transparency and flexibility for the customer," while also giving MPEA oversight to audit convention contracts "to ensure that labor costs are accurately represented."

The plan to sweeten the city's value proposition to convention planners found urgency among city, state and industry leaders after the Society of the Plastics Industry shunned its decades-long home at McCormick Place, opting instead to hold its 2012 National Plastics Expo at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. That blow followed the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's selection of Las Vegas as the host city for its 2012 Annual HIMSS Conference & Exhibition, beating out second-place contender Chicago. Those trade groups and others have cited the high cost of putting on shows in Chicago and tedious labor work rules as key factors to steering business away form the city.

"We can do what it takes, pass this legislation to modernize our business model, create new jobs and growth," said MPEA chairman John Gates Jr. in a statement this month, "or we can continue to operate at a competitive disadvantage and watch the steady decline of one of our state's most important economic resources."

As part of the legislative proposal, MPEA also is seeking approval of a plan to restructure its debt on a recent expansion.

In addition to the new legislative proposal that now must wind its way through the Illinois general assembly, MPEA said it has made other changes to its operations, cutting costs by reducing headcount by 40 percent from 2007, when it had 700 employees, to around 400 today.

Originally published Jan. 25, 2010