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Sin eaters turn the tables on Chicago legislation

I’m sure by now, everybody in the tradeshow industry is aware of the sweeping changes enacted by the Illinois Legislature, which were overturned by Federal Judge Ronald Guzman here in Chicago. Judge Guzman found that the legislature had violated the National Labor Relations Act by interfering with the collective bargaining rights of union tradeshow workers. This ruling was appealed, and in response, he issued a permanent injunction to the appeal. It was a shot heard around the world. Well, at least in the tradeshow world, that is.


In his decision, Judge Guzman said, “Despite its breadth, it is not clear that (the legislation) advances the state’s goal of reducing exhibitor’s costs. There are a number of other ways for the State to reach that goal… but there is no evidence that the State considered acting on any of these.”

Prior to this ruling, Illinois politicians had made legislation the weapon of choice to force union concessions. They felt they had momentum on their side, and the general public was willing to single out union workers as the reason behind Chicago’s troubles. The spotlight was off the big boys, and they were free to return to their time-honored tradition of gouging the exhibitor.

At the time, unions thought that if they make concessions, it would placate the industry. Unfortunately, accommodation was perceived as weakness, and supporters of this legislation continued to press their advantage. The tradeshow unions forgot the lesson they learned as children: if you give the school yard bully your lunch money without a fight, he’s going to come back for it day after day. That all changed when the Carpenters and the Teamsters won their lawsuit.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this wasn’t that legislators tried to get away with something they knew was illegal, but how the media covered this issue. Media, both print and electronic, had dutifully reported as fact, the rhetoric supplied to them by the same people who had been largely responsible for creating this mess. In fact, they routinely submitted verbatim accounts directly from press releases. Rarely bothering to even alter the exact wording… In essence, it was cut and paste journalism.

One notable exception was a recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business, this article brought up many relevant issues. For example, the fact that drayage rates were a major source of price gouging, and exhibitors had cited this as more of an issue than labor jurisdictions. In addition, the article mentioned the issue of associations excessively marking up the cost of floor space, which according to the article, can reach 2,000 percent.

However, none of this seemed to matter to the legislators, who instead chose to focus on a group that has become the whipping boy for the entire country…organized labor.

Back in ancient times, a rich guy who had done a lot of bad things in his life and wanted to be absolved of his sins would have a designated person eat bread that was placed near his body. The logic behind this was that the sins would be transferred to the bread and when the “sin eater” ate the bread, the sins of the rich guy would be transferred to the “sin eater,” and the rich guy was now cleansed of the consequences of his wrongdoing. The sin eater would get a meal, but was doomed to eternal hell for all of the sins he had absorbed through his role as a “sin eater.”

This example in folklore has parallels to the situation here in Chicago. For many years, union workers had unwittingly assumed the role of sin eaters, because the most powerful players in the industry needed a focus of blame to keep themselves free from the consequences of their actions. They were smart enough to recognize and then tap into the envy and resentment in our country toward union workers.

The guilt of sin eater was never a logical belief, but never turned pernicious until the outside world began to accept it as fact. It ended when Judge Guzman made his ruling.

Posted in View from the Floor
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