CHICAGO — After watching trade shows abandon Chicago and take millions of dollars with them, unions agreed to a host of work rule changes that will make the city's massive convention center a friendlier and cheaper place for companies and industries to show their wares.
The deal, announced Friday, came after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn helped convince two major unions to accept it.
"This is the worst news for Orlando (Fla.) and Las Vegas," Emanuel said, referring to two cities that have lured trade shows away from Chicago's McCormick Place in recent years.
The agreement with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters and the Teamsters Local 727 does away with many of the practices that have infuriated trade show exhibitors for years, not to mention contributed to the lore about unions with so much clout in the city that jobs as small as changing a light bulb or hammer a single nail didn't get done unless a union worker did it.
It is also a major victory for Emanuel, who has clashed with unions since he took office in May, and even blamed organized labor leaders' unwillingness to bend on work rules to bring costs down as the reason why he was announcing that he would lay off as many as 625 workers over the summer. McCormick Place, with the estimated $8 billion it generates and 66,000 jobs it supports, is considered crucial to his efforts to generate revenue at a time when the city is facing a $636 million deficit.
"Everybody gave a little but everybody won a lot because people are going to work," said the mayor, who engaged in what were described as grueling negotiations with the unions in recent days.
Under the agreement, exhibitors would be allowed to use their own ladders and tools and load and unload their own vehicles — jobs the work rules of the convention center specified must go to union workers. Further, the reforms include an agreement to reduce the size of union work crews from three to two-person crews and lengthen the window of time during a workday in which a union worker is paid straight time.
The provisions were just the kind of things that the unions were fighting in a federal lawsuit they filed after state lawmakers passed legislation that changed work rules to lower labor costs at McCormick Place. The fact that the unions — which won a major victory earlier this year when a federal judge tossed out the reforms enacted by lawmakers — accepted the deal illustrates their understanding that the old work rules were helping drive conventions from the city and the danger that in tough economic times, more could follow.
"We just couldn't have shows leaving," said Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, after he and other union leaders appeared with Quinn and Emanuel at McCormick Place to announce the deal.
In the last few years, a number of shows have pulled out, including a plastics industry trade show that in 2009 announced that it was moving its 2012 and 2015 shows to Orlando after nearly 40 years in the city. That same year, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society was so troubled by the high costs and unbending union rules it found at McCormick Place that it decided it too was taking its 2012 show to Las Vegas.
Perhaps just as significantly, Emanuel said the legal battle was hurting both the city's ability to keep conventions from leaving and attracting new ones.
"It lifts a cloud that existed over McCormick Place and all the shows that were on hold and the shows that were looking to make a decision now have the certainty that they need to book shows here in the city of Chicago," he said.
Shows like that of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society. After deciding it was through with Chicago after its 2009 show, the work-rules legislation prompted the group to announce earlier this year that it would return in 2015 and 2019. But the legal uncertainty had the group wondering if it wanted to take its show — which attracts 35,000 visitors and generates about $50 million — elsewhere.
"We had a lot of cities knocking at our door saying, 'Hey, doesn't look like Chicago is going to work for you now. ... Do you want to take another look at us?'" said Karen Malone, the organization's vice president of meeting services.
Emanuel said the agreement will pay off almost immediately, adding that on Thursday, representatives of the hotel industry told him that as much as half a billion dollars to build new hotels and rehab existing ones will now go forward because of the deal.