Major trade shows are flying out of Chicago's McCormick Place faster than you can say ``time and a half.''
High labor costs, combined with housing and transportation concerns, are driving some businesses away from that excellent convention complex, where the plastics industry gathers regularly for some of its biggest trade fairs, including the triennial NPE.
Since last fall, both the 61,000-person Radiological Society of North America and the 43,000-person National Marine Manufacturers Association have pulled their annual shows from McCormick and bolted for Orlando, Fla.
In late May, Crain's Chicago Business reported that the National Housewares Manufacturers Association is considering uprooting its annual, 60,000-attendee January show, also in favor of the Sunshine State. NHMA is mulling a move to the planned World Expo Center, a $1.1 billion venue in Osceola, Fla., just a chip shot from Orlando, that will cover 3 million square feet when it opens in 2001.
If NHMA pulls the plug on Chicago, the combined impact on the local economy of those three shows alone leaving town would be an estimated $246 million per year.
In a June 1 editorial, Crain's Chicago noted: ``The principal beef — and it's a legitimate one — concerns the obscenely high labor rates and featherbedding among McCormick Place unions.'' The newspaper has urged Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to force his labor allies to the bargaining table or the Illinois Legislature to impose a package of labor reforms. The Illinois General Assembly failed to do that in its just-ended spring session, when it voted down by a single vote a measure to institute some necessary labor reforms.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., which organizes NPE and Plastics USA at McCormick Place, wrote letters last year to lawmakers supporting that legislation, according to Jordan L. Morgenstern, Washington-based SPI's vice president for trade shows.
``We agree that change is needed,'' he said. ``We're taking a wait-and-see attitude, and hoping the unions will cooperate.''
Currently no other venue in the United States is equipped to handle the hefty size and machinery requirements for the 82,000-visitor NPE show — though presumably the Osceola facility, when it opens, will offer an alternative. Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau data indicates that NPE contributes $132 million to the local economy, the third-highest of all Windy City expositions.
According to Crain's Chicago, some unions have seen the light and agreed to changes. But those representing decorators and riggers thus far have not.
There is, however, at least a flicker of hope. A much-needed new dialogue between the major parties — labor leaders, city officials, McCormick Place management and some show organizers — started with a June 4 meeting, and further talks are planned.
Deborah Sexton, the convention bureau's vice president of sales and service, said she's convinced there will be a resolution in 1998. While noting the city is addressing its expo-related housing and traffic woes, Sexton says of the labor issue: ``It would be best if it could be done with negotiation and not legislation.''
Indeed. Perhaps the harsh reality and continued threat of losing business (read ``union jobs'') to aggressive expo-hall managers will refocus the attention of local labor leaders, and convince them that being competitive isn't such a bad idea after all.