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After a strike shut down the Pennsylvania Convention Center for one day last week – just as a 10,000-delegate convention was about to move in – some suggested that Gov. Corbett intervene to jawbone the Carpenters District Council and its president Ed Coryell Sr., the man who called the strike.

That may not be such a good idea.

Although our conservative Republican governor could be expected to frown upon the antics of a labor union at a state-owned facility, Corbett may not be the man to bring down the hammer on the carpenters union, if you will excuse the pun.

That’s because the governor is also a bona fide FOE – a Friend of Ed’s, one of the many politicians who have received financial support from the union in the form of campaign contributions. A look at that record shows that Ed has many, many friends.

The carpenters political action committee (PAC) gave Corbett $250,000 when he first ran for governor in 2010. That’s big money by any standard and, as we all know, money talks in politics.

Though it seems out of character – after all, aren’t unions supposed to give just to Democrats? – the carpenters PAC has a slight Republican tilt.  That’s partly because the carpenters union is a regional one, and covers a number of counties in eastern Pennsylvania, many of them Republican controlled.

It’s also a good example of Coryell’s practice of realpolitik. You give to winners (and Corbett was a clear favorite in 2010) and you give to people in power, regardless of party.  In the three-year period ending in 2012, the carpenters PAC handed out $1.5 million in campaign contributions. With $250,000 in contributions, Corbett was the biggest recipient of the PAC’s largesse, but there were other six- and-five figure recipients.

This is something to keep in mind while surveying the mess that is the Pennsylvania Convention Center.  The $1.3-billion facility that now sprawls from Broad to 11th Street is in danger of becoming a white elephant.

After it completed a $780-million expansion in 2011, the center was primed to attract big-name groups whose conventions draw thousands of delegates.  Backers of the expansion – paid entirely with taxpayer dollars – projected 20 to 30 of these so-called “citywides” each year.

The center has 20 conventions this year, but after that the numbers quickly drop off; only eight are booked for 2016.  The word among convention bookers is this: They love the city, and love the center, but hate the hassle factor — which is shorthand for trouble with excessive costs and trouble with some of the union workers who staff the center.  So, they are voting with their feet and booking elsewhere.  In the highly competitive national market, there are lots of other choices.

You can read an earlier AxisPhilly story outlining the center’s problems here.

Coryell wears two hats at the Convention Center.  As head of the carpenters, he is leader of one of the six unions that work at the center  and his son, Ed Coryell Jr., is the union’s business manager at the center.

The carpenters are the center’s problem child, subject of most of the complaints about bad service and high fees. As one center source put it, when it comes to union troubles at the center: “We don’t have a labor problem.  We have a carpenters union problem.”

As a union leader, it was Coryell who walked out of contract negotiations with the center’s management last Wednesday (July 31) and called a strike.  It is the carpenters, sources say, who are the only obstacle to a long-term contract and Customer Satisfaction Agreement.

The strike forced center’s management to cave on getting a new CSA – officially, postponing it for a year – out of fear that the cancelling of a convention of the American Diabetes Educators would be a public relations disaster that would put the nail in the coffin of the center’s already damaged reputation. Make that a union-hammered nail.

At the same time, Coryell sits on the center’s board. He was recently appointed to replace Pat Gillespie, who is head of the local Building and Construction Trades Council, and was not re-appointed to another term.

To put it another way, Coryell is both labor and management. On the labor side of the table he has the deciding vote.  On the management side, he is one of 15 board members, so numerically he does not have as much leverage.

But, look again.  As leader of a large 8,000-member regional union, Coryell has clout that exceeds most of the other 14 board members.  His PAC giving assures even more.

For instance, Coryell was officially appointed to the board by the Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa of the Pittsburgh area. But, sources tell me that two Philadelphia senators Vincent Hughes ($7,000) and Tony Williams ($5,000) were the ones who actually advanced the name. As many know, Williams has aspirations to run for mayor in 2015.  (It never hurts to have labor on your side in this city.)

Appointing rights on the 15-member board are divvied up among local officials in the five counties, the governor, and legislative leaders.  Rob Wonderling, head of the region’s Chamber of Commerce and John Kroll, a representative of the local hotel industry, are Corbett appointees on the board.

Democrat Josh Shapiro ($30,000 from the PAC) is the board member from from Montgomery County, where he serves as an elected county commissioner.
Councilwoman Marian Tasco ($15,000) is an appointee of Mayor Nutter ($20,000).

Councilman Mark Squilla is on the board because, by law, a seat goes to the councilman from the First District.  Squilla did not receive any carpenters contributions during the 2010-2012 cycle, but council is well taken care of my the union’s PAC. It has contributed $116,000 to 14 different council members since 2010.

Board member Frank Buzydlowski is an appointee of Council Minority Leader Brian O’Neill ($26,000). Both are Republicans.

David Woods is a board member appointed by the Senate President, but his claim to fame came as chief of staff to Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi, whose district includes Delaware and Chester Counties.  Pileggi ($155,000) may be the most influential legislator in Harrisburg, but the carpenters believe in the trickle down theory as well.  The PAC has  given $100,000 to eight different state senators – six Democrats and two other Republicans.

A $1,000 contribution here; $10,000 there; $25,000 to someone else.  Pretty soon, it all adds up.  Ten of the 15 board members are FOE’s or appointed by FOE’s.

Make that 11.  I forgot Coryell himself.

All of this will give special meaning to the moment when the Convention Center board, trying to stop the center’s free fall, fashions a solution and then turns to board member Ed Coryell and asks: “Ed, what do you think?’

When Coryell speaks, they will listen.


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story identified Senate President Joe Scarnati as the leader who appointed Ed Coryell to the Convention Center board.  That was in error.  Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa made the appointment.