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By Tom Ferrick

The board at the troubled Pennsylvania Convention Center punted on making important work rules changes to end a strike involving four of the six unions that work at the $1.3-billion facility that began 9 a.m. yesterday (Thursday).

The unions decided to end their one-day walkout as of 6 a.m. today (Friday) after management backed away from trying to get a new 10-year customer service agreement.  The board had offered the unions 3 percent raises, but wanted significant changes in the CSA. The old CSA had expired July 1.

In order to get the unions back to work — and setting up a convention due to begin next week — the board decided instead to a one-year extension to the existing CSA, along with a 2.5 percent raise.

The board’s retreat was good news, in one sense.  It means the American Diabetes Educators Association, due in town next Wednesday, can hold its convention at the center.  The four-day event is expected to draw 10,000 attendees and generate $22 million for city hotels, restaurants, tourist and entertainment venues.

If the Diabetes group had been forced to cancel, it would have been a public relations nightmare for the center, with reverberations through the convention industry.

It is bad news in another sense.  The center has been losing business because of widespread complaints among convention bookers and managers about labor practices at the site, saying they create too many hassles and lead to excessive overtime. This management retreat signals that the unions still rule at the center. In other words, SNAFU — Situation Normal – All Fouled Up — at least in the eyes of convention bookers.

When the 780,000-square-foot extension of the center opened in 2011, it was supposed to draw 20 to 30 major conventions each year.  This year the center will host 20 conventions, but the booking drop off dramatically after that.  Only eight conventions have booked for 2016.  Typically, conventions book five or more years in advance.

It was the Carpenters Union that led the walkout that began at 9 a.m. yesterday (Thursday).  They were joined by the riggers, teamsters and stagehands.  The laborers refused to join the strike.  The electricians declined to cross the picket line.

The pressure was clearly on the 15-member board: face down the unions and lose one convention in the name of a long-term solution or kick the can down the road and leave resolution of the issues to another day.  The board kicked the can.

Ryan Boyer, a board member who is also business manager of the laborers district council, was opposed, and his union did not join the strike.

Also opposed was Patrick Gillespie, another board member and head of the city’s  Building Trades Council who also participated in the negotiations.

“The public-relations implications of this could have ramifications for years,” Gillespie said in an interview with the Inquirer. “We know how perception quickly becomes reality in this world.”

Gillespie stepped down from the board last month.  He was replaced by Ed Coryell Sr., head of the Carpenters District Council and father of Ed Coryell Jr., who is the union’s business manager at the center.

It was Coryell Sr., in his role as union leader, who broke off talks and called the strike.

Click here for an earlier AxisPhilly story that provides an overview on the situation at the convention center.