It was to have been a new deal for exhibitors at Graph Expo, Print, and scores of other trade shows at Chicago’s McCormick Place: a set of legislative reforms aimed at making it easier and less expensive to produce events at the lakeside expo and convention center. But, a recent ruling by a federal judge has overturned some of those changes and may keep them from being retained.

On March 31, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Guzman ruled that a bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly last May interferes with the right of McCormick Place employees, most of whom are unionized, to negotiate employment terms with contractors at events there. This means that changes related to union work rules may have to be thrown out, undoing pledges made by the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC) and other trade show producers that had sought and won a more favorable deal for their exhibitors.

Judge Guzman has not yet entered the permanent injunction that would enforce his ruling. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), the public agency that owns and operates McCormick Place, has said that all changes will remain in effect while it seeks a stay of implementation from Judge Guzman or, failing to get that, files an appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If the appeal doesn’t succeed, and if Judge Guzman’s ruling is implemented as written, it would mean the end of relief for exhibitors from the high cost of labor and the restrictive work rules that have made McCormick Place a byword for the agonies of putting on trade shows in highly unionized environments. MPEA, with the backing of GASC and other trade show organizers, had said that extensive changes were needed in order to keep major trade shows from abandoning Chicago as a venue.

A Chicago Tribune editorial on Judge Guzman’s ruling worries that McCormick Place unions will “take Chicago back to its bad old days as Gouge City” if MPEA’s appeal goes nowhere.

Exactly what awaits exhibitors at Graph Expo 2011 in September isn’t clear. But this blog, citing a contact with an official of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and a webinar led by the general manager of McCormick Place, says that exhibitors could lose the relief that had been obtained in relation to union overtime pay; self-assembly of booths; vehicle access; and labor crew size. Some aspects of the reforms enacted last year, including protection from markup of food service costs, will not be impacted, says the blog.

Judge Guzman’s ruling is a particular setback for GASC, which is striving to reinvigorate the Graph Expo and Print shows after several recession-fraught years of declining attendance and diminished vendor participation. In an interview with WhatTheyThink last year, Ralph Nappi, president of GASC, said that the reform legislation was key to convincing Graph Expo and Print exhibitors that the shows should be kept in Chicago.

Today, in response to a request from WhatTheyThink, GASC commented on the situation as follows:

“Graphic Arts Show Company is disappointed at the judge’s ruling. However, a stay is being requested and an appeal filed by MPEA.

“Ironically, although the stay has not yet been granted, the trades have decided to continue working under the newer work rules passed in May 2010 and enjoyed at GRAPH EXPO 2010 until the appeal is completed. GASC is optimistic that the positive changes passed through Illinois State legislation to make Chicago’s McCormick Place competitive with other primary US trade show markets will continue because to go backwards would hurt Chicago more than if the changes had never occurred.”