By MALLORY GRUBEN
Workers at Powell’s Books will hold a one-day unfair labor practice strike on Labor Day to protest what they say is the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith. They’re asking the public not to shop at Powell’s in-store or online that day.
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5 represents more than 300 workers at Powell’s, Portland’s world famous independent bookseller. The union started bargaining for a new contract in February, and members have been working without a contract since their previous agreement expired June 7, following a one-week extension.
On June 20, workers rejected what Powell’s called its “last, best, and final offer” and proceeded to a strike authorization vote. That vote concluded Aug. 2, with 92% approval.
Wages and health care costs are the major sticking points, said union representative Myka Dubay. Workers want to raise the starting wage to $21 an hour. Their proposal is based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, which found that a single person with no kids would need to make $21.85 an hour to cover the basic needs in Multnomah County.
The company responded first with a proposal for $16 an hour, then upped it to $16.50, Dubay said.
“We are trying to shift things up, so there is a path to a living wage for everyone,” said Dubay, who is on union leave from a position in Powell’s gift department. “We see bookselling as a career. For us, this isn’t just a transient job.”
In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for Powell’s Books said the company’s proposal would reduce monthly premiums for health insurance, eliminate deductibles for most doctors visits, improve the retirement plan match, and increase wages for every worker.
“We believe our proposal demonstrates commitment to the bargaining process, and we remain hopeful that we will reach an agreement that is sustainable and honors our employees,” the statement said.
Under the last contract, the pay scale for a bookseller tops out at $19 an hour. And when the Portland-area minimum wage reached $15.45 on July 1, it passed the union-bargained starting wage at Powell’s, shrinking the difference in pay between newly hired and more senior workers. Powell’s had to raise the starting wage for a bookseller to comply with the law, Dubay said.
Powell’s workers haven’t struck since 2003, when bargaining over their second contract broke down.
Local 5 at first planned to wait until another negotiation on Aug. 24 before calling a strike. But managers told Local 5 they’re no longer available to meet that day. Though bargaining has been rescheduled for Sept. 5-6, the company told workers that it sees no reason to meet, Dubay said.