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Court Strikes Down Springfield Labor Reforms. Bloated Wages Back On At McPier

By Sean Stillmaker in News on Apr 2, 2011 4:00PM


We assume most Chicagoans seldom set foot in the McCormick Place after the Auto Show. The nation’s largest convention center is also a microcosm of how the city and state does business. It’s a political playpen where politicians and unions exert their influence on the ingenuous outside businesses.

With a slumping economy and declining convention rate the state legislature tried instituting union labor reforms last year at the behest of their agency running it, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (McPier). The changes that took effect Aug. 1 limited union work by cutting their crew sizes, overtime and work they were mandated to perform. On Thursday U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman ruled the state’s meddling with labor is unconstitutional. So things are back to business as usual at McCormick.

Many conventioneers have consistently complained about the cost of putting on a show there. Prior to Springfield's passing of the now-stricken down reforms, no one was allowed to setup their own booth, equipment or even use a tool unless you were with the union. If you wanted to connect a TV to an outlet, that had to be done by a union worker who would get paid minimum $103 an hour for the 60 seconds worth of work.

The cost of doing business at McCormick is astronomical. That’s why Las Vegas and Orlando book twice as many shows a year. For example: setting up at ice machine in Orlando costs $720, in Chicago its $1,700. A 24-hour service for a refrigerator costs $48 in Orlando, but it’s $400 here. If you want power for your booth in Orlando it’s $9,200, but here it’s $12,800 plus $5,000 for labor, the Tribune reports.

We felt pressured to use union workers for even simple tasks. We also were forced to use McCormick’s laborers to setup our machines, which we would have to redo afterwards ourselves. We paid money for jobs that were made harder and took longer to accomplish,” said John Memmelaar, VP of Royal Masters Grinders in Venues Today.

When McCormick instituted labor changes last year conventioneers were shocked. They were able to save up to 23 percent, setup their own booths and use tools. “Those reforms has virtually overnight transformed McCormick Place,” Jim Reilly, president of McPier told the Sun Times. Reilly was also appointed by the General Assembly to run McPier.

It’s easy to poke fun at union labor costs. If McPier was truly serious about reform they should take a look at upper management salaries. From 2008-09 the number of salaried positions grew to 322 from 301. Those earning more than $100,000 grew to 54 from 48. Overall McPier spent $96 million on salaries and benefits in 2008, 44% of its revenue, Crains Chicago Business reports.

Limiting corruption and ties to organized crime would also help the convention center. Last year an alleged top ranking Outfit member was arrested and charged for rigging contracts to supply forklifts at McCormick. Ghost payrolling, stolen goods and ex-cons working the show have been all too common at McCormick.

Michael “The Large Guy” Sarno is the latest Mob boss to be convicted. He also was a union carpenter worker at McCormick where he got injured on the job and sued. Judge Guzman was also the presiding judge of Sarno’s case and has presided over his share of mob cases lately. He ruled last year to allow an alleged mobster waiting on trial to visit his daughter’s wedding to an alleged mob leader of the 26th Street Crew.

Despite the back to business as usual McPier management said they’ll be appealing the case in hopes of keeping their labor reforms. It's unclear at the moment if shows that were scheduled will be pulling out next year.