Leaders say unions not to blame for trade show slowdown

April 7, 2010 3:22:58 PM PDT
Union workers are telling lawmakers that they are not to blame for rising costs at McCormick Place. They went on the record Wednesday and placed the blame on contractors and those who run the convention center for causing trade shows to flee the city.

Union leaders made it clear Wednesday that their members alone will not shoulder the blame for the business slowdown at McCormick Place. They testified in the second of two hearings held by a joint committee of the Illinois House and Senate.

"These are half-time, part-time jobs yet our people are relying upon them as the staple of their employment," said John Coli, Teamsters Union.

The union leaders insisted that none of their members were getting rich setting up shows at McCormick Place. The truckers, electricians, riggers, carpenters and decorators are all averaging less than $50,000 a year as Chicago's big trade shows scale back during the recession.

"Listening to testimony given in the previous hearing, it is apparent there are misconceptions of how the system actually works," said Kevin McLaughlin, Carpenters Union.

Last week, the lawmakers heard from trade show managers and exhibitors, as well the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, which estimated as many 20 events could pull out of McCormick Place by July 1.

Union leaders said the show contractors are unfairly marking up the cost of union labor and overcharging exhibitors.

"Let me be clear. All pricing is approved, published and distributed in advance of the trade show to each exhibitor," said Doug Van Ort, trade show contractor.

"This is crucial to the economic viability of about 65,000 families in Chicago, and we're gonna fix it," said State Sen. Kirk Dillard, (R) Hinsdale.

The General Assembly is considering reorganizing McPier, granting money to help McCormick Place compete with Las Vegas and Orlando, and refinancing nearly $1 billion in debt incurred by the most recent expansion of the lakeside campus.

"We cannot meet our debt service from today's tax revenues," said John Gates, McPier CEO.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, one of the joint committee's co-chairs, said there were plenty of people to blame for what's going wrong with Chicago's convention business. He wants to focus on the future.

"The problem is the shows are leaving Chicago," said Madigan. "We want them to stay here. We want them to come here. We recognize the economic benefit to the city and the state of having the shows here."

Madigan said he was confident the lawmakers would pass legislation aimed at helping McCormick Place by May 7, the scheduled end of the spring session.

But, no matter what they do in Springfield, if other cities respond with a better deal, the trade shows could leave anyway. It is very much a buyers' market.