Portland bookstore workers stage first of multiple walkouts

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

No contract, and alleged labor law violations, drove employees at Powell’s Books in Portland to wage a one-day strike Nov. 12.

More than 400 workers at Powell’s, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, have been without a contract since their first agreement expired Oct. 2. On Nov. 11 they voted overwhelmingly to initiate the first of as many as three one-day strikes to protest unfair labor practices.

In seven charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, members of Local 5 allege that Powell’s managers have singled out union leaders for harassment, disciplining them for using work e-mail for union communications.

The two sides are still meeting in contract negotiations, but several issues are preventing agreement, particularly wages and health benefits. Management is proposing 2 percent annual increases; the union proposes 6 to 7 percent. And Powell’s wants a substantial increase in employees’ out-of-pocket payments toward their monthly health insurance premiums. Workers currently pay $32.90 a month for individual coverage and as much as $250 for family coverage, plus a $100 annual deductible.

At the packed strike vote meeting Nov. 11, it was clear workers were feeling pushed too far by management, said Local 5 President Mary Winzig.

“After 11 years at Powell’s, I’m almost making a living wage,” Powell’s employee Shelley Brannan told the press. “I’m a loyal employee and I love my job, but when I saw management’s proposal I was shocked.”

“There was a lot of emotion on both sides said of the strike vote,” Winzig said. “Going on strike is really scary and very serious.”

Strikes are rare, even moreso at retail establishments, few of which are unionized outside of grocery departments. Would Powell’s customers show solidarity with workers by refusing to cross picket lines?

At Powell’s, 1005 West Burnside flagship store on the day of the strike, workers circled all entrances, asking customers not to enter. “Picket lines mean don’t cross! Shop tomorrow, not today!” they chanted.

Some customers agreed not to enter after being approached by strikers. But many crossed anyway, stepping stealthily through the rotating picket line, and in some cases hiding faces behind hands.

Still, it was clear business was down substantially.

Ann Smith, Powell’s CEO for operations, told the NW Labor Press that the store was quiet inside — except for the chants and bullhorns of the picketers.

And both sides agreed that very few workers crossed picketlines to work.

At the shipping department, a virtual blockade by workers, joined by their fellow unionists in the Longshore Union and about 40 yellow-T-shirted members of the Laborers Union, succeeded in halting outgoing shipments. Smith said to avoid the chaos, the company cancelled shipments for the day.

Negotiations resumed the following day.

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