History of Local 5:
No Decisions About Us Without Us: A History of a Bookstore Union
By Kristin Russ
“Powell’s does better than many other bookstores do as far as wages and benefits. But Powell’s is easily the best bookstore in Portland, probably the best bookstore in the United States.”
-Ian McCullough, Powell’s employee; 1998
“If the union succeeds, it won’t make our lives perfect. But it will make history. And it will make the circumstances of our jobs—both practical and intangible—quite a bit better.”
-Miranda Outman, Powell’s employee; 1998
The celebration cascaded out onto the sidewalk. Friends and co-workers hugged and cried together, congratulating each other on the success of their ambitious journey. It was August 1, 2000 and, at last, the ILWU Local 5 and the Powell’s Books, Inc. corporate bargaining teams had reached a tentative agreement on a first contract—all that awaited was a ratifying vote from workers. The day was momentous for the employees at Powell’s who had fought for nearly two years to organize a union at the Portland, Oregon company. The end of bargaining came after almost 11 months and 53 bargaining sessions, with many hard feelings on both sides of the table and much conflict within the Portland community. Powell’s Burnside bookstore had become a mecca for the liberal-minded city of Portland, but the unending conflict challenged the resolve of the community for too long. The hard won agreement became a contract to get back to the selling of books. Everyone was ready to move on, although some were uncertain what a unionized Powell’s would mean.
A History of a Bookstore
Walter Powell started the original bookstore without knowing anything about the book business. Famous for putting both new and used books on the same shelf, Powell’s Books became a local success. In 1979 Michael Powell returned to Portland, after selling his own successful bookstore in Chicago, to join and eventually take over from his father. The flagship store sits on busy Burnside Street, just west of downtown Portland, Oregon. When it first opened in 1971, and into the 1990s, Powell’s shared the neighborhood with Henry Weinhards brewery in an industrial part of the city center. The heady aroma of hops permeated the air around the bookstore, generating a certain atmosphere—that of an intellectual working man’s place to browse and shop.
Taking up an entire city block, the building is now an amalgam of then and now—part old auto dealership, with big front windows and a leaky roof, and part new retail tower, with wooden accents and an eye on their high end neighbors. Since the brewery shut down in 2000, Powell’s back door has reestablished itself from an industrial landscape to the nouveau riche Pearl District neighborhood—filled with boutiques, specialty stores and expensive condominiums. The building holds nine rooms, color coded for easier maneuvering. The three floors of retail space, seven flights of stairs, and one 3 door elevator have earned Powell’s the name “City of Books”.
Frequently tattooed and pierced, the employees have helped set Powell’s in that realm of avant-garde and grunge. Even if the customer service sometimes feels curt or rough, shoppers know that Powell’s staff can deliver the right book into their hands. People come to Powell’s to experience this, the gritty art of bookselling. They also come for the used and rare editions. The phrase, “If Powell’s doesn’t have it, who does?” echoes through its aisles. Tourists from all over the world come to Portland specifically to shop at this bookstore. And the Portland community beholds Powell’s as a point of pride to the city and owner Michael Powell as a beacon of Portland’s progressive viewpoint.
Michael Powell holds a place as Portland’s liberal ambassador of sorts. He has been in the political forefront, actively working to protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians—even lending the use of his bookstore and phone lines to gay rights campaigns. He has supported teachers and schools, raising money through store fund-raising efforts to help them buy books for schools. He has fought censorship, making anti-censorship petitions available at store locations. He has provided such extras to his employees as child care benefits, education benefits, and, on occasion, profit share checks. He has participated in many community councils and boards, even serving as a commissioner for the Port of Portland for a time. Michael Powell has received many awards and much kudos for his civic mindedness and for his ability to keep an independent bookstore thriving in a world of corporate dominance. Since taking over the company from his father, Michael Powell had opened six additional stores and operated several book warehouses in the Portland area. He also started a booming Internet business. From the outside it seemed, for a time, that his success was unfoilable. But when his employees began the search for union representation in the fall of 1998 it changed the public’s perception of the store and its owner.
The September Surprise
On September 14th 1998, Ann Smith, Powell’s Corporate Manager, sent an email out to the entire corporation with the subject heading: Compensation changes. The email was from a group of Powell’s managers and explained that Powell’s had worked for the past few years to streamline employee’s pay ranges to suit common market pay ranges. And although Powell’s had been recently able to “afford a high level of investment in base pay and still generate profits enough to exceed our profit share threshold and pay out bonuses,” management expected that future Powell’s profits and growth would be less than those of the past. Therefore, reductions in employee’s wage increases were going to be put into effect . There would now be three levels of wage increases:
- 2% for employees performing at a “fully satisfactory” level. (Management expected 95% of employees to be at this level).
- 0-1% for employees not performing at a fully satisfactory level
- 3% for those employees whose performance has been “outstanding”.
No explanation was given on what would define “outstanding,” “fully satisfactory,” or not “fully satisfactory.” Management added that some employees could also be considered for a promotion, possible increasing pay as well. The email went on to state: “What we are letting go of is the idea that we can afford to increase people’s compensation along the way as they take on added responsibilities or gain knowledge and skills. It is our assumption that enough added responsibility will, over time, add up to a promotion.”
That night several employees met at Ringlers Annex, a nearby bar, to discuss these and other recent changes. Talk began of what could be done to give employees a outlet to respond to such vague or uninformed policy changes. A few pints into the evening it was decided that organizing could be the precarious, most necessary option. This, however, was not the first time Powell’s employees had gathered out of frustration with management handlings and attempted an organizing effort.
The Christmas Massacre of 1991: A First Attempt
Seven years earlier, in January 1991, Powell’ s instituted some post holiday lay-offs, known as the Christmas Massacre. In response, several Powell’s workers got together (in much the same way as the September Surprise collective) to discuss how employees could have more say in their jobs. Years of feeling ignored by management had led to a build up of frustration in workers’ lives. And now with the recent firings, these workers made the difficult decision that a union may be the best way to have their voices heard. Core issues of the group included wanting more control over policy and influence with management. The Oregon Public Employees Union (OPEU) was contacted to help them organize for a union.
As Powell’s had grown from a small, independent bookstore, it had become an unwieldy machine when it came to store policy. The company had changed into something larger than the original store and one person could no longer run the entire institution. Eventually, Powell’s formed a top down style of management, wherein the few at the top would be in control of all decision making. Rather than continue the tradition of employees and managers working together effectively for the store, it moved toward a new structure—that of a faceless corporation where store decisions were being made without the people who put the books in the hands of customers. Therefore, employees feared that their jobs might end up like that of an assembly line—monotonous and uncreative. So, throughout the several years prior to that first organizing effort in 1991, workers would gather at local taverns during their off time and discuss problems and potential solutions within the company. One such effort at the Burnside store concerned 17 members, elected from every department in the Burnside store. These members compiled a list of questionable store practices, as well as possible solutions. After a year’s time of gathering information, several representatives offered this list to management. The committee, however, received no response.
During these years of quietly meeting outside of work to discuss store changes and policy, sparks of unionizing would flit about in conversation. However, it took those January lay-offs to foment real action. An Organizing Committee accepted the OPEU as their bargaining agent. During that late winter and early spring the Organizing Committee worked to rally employees and get them to sign union cards. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) (a Congress created agency that governs labor laws and arbitrates in labor disputes) requires that 30% of employees sign cards in order to file for a union certification election. Despite the Committee’s efforts, in July it was decided that, while there were enough cards to file for an election, the percentage of signed cards were below the 65% suggested by the OPEU for a successful election. In retrospect, this 1991 organizing effort failed for several reasons. First of all, shopping for a union took too long. Second, OPEU may not have been the best choice for the workers needs. Third, the focus was on the Burnside store, rather than the entire corporation. Last of all, misinformation and a lack of understanding about what a union could mean lessened support. These, as well as a general fear among employees to confront management with the severity of a union, were reasons why this original attempt fell through.
The Organizing Committee left Michael Powell with a letter about their decision not to file. In it they listed suggestions toward changes, including:
- A consistent wage policy
- A choice by employees to pursue a variety of responsibilities
- Regular and direct contact between supervisor and employees
- A viable and enforceable grievance procedure
- Clear job descriptions
The Committee vowed that they would remain vigilant toward the implementation of these changes. The letter also stated, “We would like to remind you that the dissatisfaction over Powell’s policies began here with your own employees. It is your own employees who have held meetings month after month, put out newsletters and invited OPEU to work with them.”
In response to the these requests and, likely, in the hopes of avoiding another organizing effort, Powell’s management created an updated and expanded Handbook in April of 1992. This included a Problem Solving/Grievance Process, Probation and Termination Procedure, and an Employee Assistance Program, among other things. However, these changes were ultimately ineffectual in dealing with the core issue important to workers—a feeling of powerlessness in their work lives. Despite a continued march toward further corporatization, it would be another seven years before workers were unable to take it anymore.
Workers Take Action: September 1998
Corporate’s email on compensation changes would not go without response. One employee, Marty Kruse, knew his coworkers were upset about the changes. So, the day the email was issued he wandered around the Burnside store carrying under his shirt a cardboard sign with the words scrawled: “If you’re pissed off, meet at Ringlers Annex at 11pm.” He flashed his message to fellow booksellers whom he thought might be sympathetic. In answer, about a dozen workers met covertly to discuss their options. The atmosphere that night lay heavy with paranoia, to the extent that even the random bar patron in the cowboy hat was seen as an informant for management. Not knowing how to take the next step, the group decided to seek guidance from representatives with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). One week later, these representatives met with an expanded group of employees, more inclusive of Powell’s workforce. Once people began talking they realized that the wage changes were not the most important issue. Many employees found that lack of management accountability and lack of respect, as well as a loss of specialization in their jobs, were common matters of contention. The recent Burnside departmental restructuring was an example of such loss of specialization.
Earlier in the spring, the Burnside store had undergone extensive changes to the organization of how sections were run. Before the change each employee was entirely responsible for every part of their sections, including deciding what books to order and how many, labeling and shelving used books, and taking inventory each year. According to longtime employee Nancy Sturken, “The assistant manager in charge of sections hand picked a group of employees, both managers and front line employees—section workers and used book buyers and others—to be a part of a committee to discuss ideas for change. This committee was presented with a complex plan of reorganization of section work that was radically different from the [current] style. There was much discussion within the committee—some agreement with the plan and many, many objections. Management thanked everybody for their time and their input and promised to take all ideas into consideration. A few weeks later the restructuring plan was presented in its final form which was almost exactly as it was first presented—the committee’s objections were ignored.” In this new plan, the store would be divided into different teams in which a group of employees would now be in charge of a specific domain of sections. Each worker felt the loss of individuality and the diminishing sense of pride and ownership in their work.
Meeting with workers from several stores with similar complaints about management helped to further motivate the already disgruntled group. Acting upon the counsel of the union representatives, many of those attending this meeting drafted and signed a letter voicing their intent to organize. This letter stated: “Because we care about Powell’s, and feel our contribution is vital to Powell’s success, we wish a unified voice to express our ideas and importance. Therefore, we the undersigned are exercising our legal right to organize.” Underneath, 26 workers signed their name. This manifesto was the first document which instigated Powell’s workers into an arduous and successful fight for unionization.
The Search and Strive for Unionization
Unlike the group in 1991, the new Organizing Committee worked toward a quick declaration of which union they wanted to represent them. It wasn’t long before the Committee determined that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was the best choice for their needs. Under the ILWU banner they were able to charter their own Local, which would be a self-governing, independent division of the larger union. This Local would function in the same democratic, inclusive and militant tradition of the ILWU. They would no longer be isolated employees of Powell’s Books. They became ILWU Local 5.
It was determined that the bargaining unit for the Powell’s corporation would include approximately 350 employees serving in a variety of jobs in all seven stores, as well as in the Internet, corporate, and shipping departments. In order to file for a union election, the Organizing Committee wanted at least 65% of the bargaining units support. The Committee encouraged their coworkers to take responsibility for their work life by pursuing an all-inclusive dialogue. General informational meetings between organizers and employees were held—myths about unionizing and unions were asked and dispelled. Employee testimonials in support of the union were distributed to gain sympathizers. Many of these gave the most effective arguments in persuading employee opinion.
One popular insinuation at this early stage had been the impropriety of employees organizing at an independent bookstore during a time of big chain takeovers and brick and mortars going out of business. A testimonial by a Burnside store used book buyer, Ian McCullough, responded to this accusation: “One specific argument deserves specific attention: that the retail business is poor and there is no money for raises. Even though the service industry has seen incredible economic growth in the last decade, some employees do not believe Powell’s can afford unionization…The fact that retailers are not unionized is used as proof that the money is not there…Why do industrial workers in unions make so much money? …because they are in a union. No one can say if there is or is not money in the compensation pie without collective bargaining.” John MacMahon, charter member of Local 5, echoed this view: “Union members make more because they can demand more. Why wouldn’t we demand the same for ourselves? Because we lack the means…With a union, we can finally start making demands.”
Another employee, Jim Dursch, compared Powell’s to another independent bookstore, and how its restructure of job duties had created similar, negative circumstances: “from my experience at Tattered Cover, the only thing [that] putting ordering in the hands of a few did, was overwhelm and overwork those few, and compromise the store’s inventory…..It would be a sad thing to see Powell’s [focus] its priorities on an easily replaceable workforce.” Sentiments for saving a faltering workplace, such as this, were unequivocal in gaining Local 5 supporters. But sentiment could be guided another direction as well.
Management began its intention to quell the support for the union among employees. By holding informational meetings and sending out letters explaining the ills a union would bring, management vied for their staffs’ attention. On November 12th 1998 a letter was sent out to employees on Powell’s letterhead in an attempt to dispel rumors of upcoming corporate changes and to show what the company had done for its employees. In efforts to convince employees that a union was not necessary the corporate managers advised: “We also want to alert people to the fact that if you don’t want to be represented by a union, if you don’t think it’s the right thing for Powell’s, your rights to oppose unionization are protected by law just as much as your coworkers’ rights to support unionization are.” The corporate managers played on the heartstrings of its employees, stressing that the uniqueness of Powell’s would be under threat and possible ruin with a union.
Despite Management’s efforts to sway employee interests into its arena, on March 12, 1999, Local 5 had enough signed Union Authorization Cards to file for a union certification election with the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board). On that rainy Friday afternoon a rally was held outside Powell’s Burnside store in celebration of the filing. Employees held signs urging a “Fast and Fair Election.” Local 5 had one month to generate the support it needed to win the election. In another testimonial John McMahon asked fellow Powellsians to consider: “Should Michael Powell be left to speak for all of us, or should we have a strong voice in shaping the future of both this company and the community it serves?”
On April 22nd, that question was answered. The ILWU was accepted as the union for Powell’s bookstore. Local 5 was official. The vote was close at 161-155. With 90% of the 350 eligible employees casting ballots only 6 votes determined the future of Powell’s Books and its employees. It wasn’t a strong win, but it was a win that would take everyone into a promising, if tentative, future. The next nine months were spent organizing toward bargaining efforts, electing a bargaining team, and surveying for employee wants and needs. On September 14th, 1999, exactly one year after Corporate’s compensation email and that first meeting of exasperated workers, the Powell’s Bargaining Team and the Local 5 Bargaining Team met across the table for the first time.
The Fight for a Contract Begins: September 1999 to March 2000
Hashing out a first contract would be a huge effort for both teams. Typical of the bargaining process, it took many months to agree on a simple accommodation. Early into bargaining, for example, neither side could even agree on the size or placement of a union bulletin board at the Burnside store. The slow and difficult negotiations continued through the fall and into the New Year. No one, however, expected that bargaining for a first contract would take less than six months and no one expected it would be easy. Sometimes it went well and things looked hopeful. But many times points were made on which neither side would yield.
One necessity for the Local 5 was a union shop. In the state of Oregon, unlike some states, unions can bargain for a “fair share” union, or closed, shop, which requires all workers to pay union dues– literally, to pay a fair share to maintain the operation of the union. On the other hand, if bargaining ended with Local 5 accepting an open shop, then individual employees have the option to pay or not pay union dues. Since the union is legally obligated to support all employees whether they pay or not, it is in the benefit of its survival to receive dues from everyone it serves. However, management, and specifically Michael Powell, was adamantly against this precept throughout contract negotiations. In response to why he disagreed with Powell’s having a closed shop, Michael Powell commented, “I’ve always championed free association.” (Curiously, this viewpoint did not extend beyond his own company. As a Portland Port Commissioner he routinely approved collective bargaining agreements for port workers that contained fair share provisions, a point which did not go unnoticed by his employees.) In the November 9th 1999 Local 5 newsletter, steward Cal Hudson clarified to Powell’s workers, “open shops have continuously been shown to be ineffective at making significant gains in wages, benefits and working conditions.” The bargaining team took a principled stand on this issue, for future workers, to insure the local would not go bankrupt. This stipulation was argued about throughout the entire negotiations.
While bargaining left off with hopeful progress for the busy holiday season, after the New Year of 2000 it slowed down as many issues were not being agreed upon, such as an open shop, and management rights and successor rights clauses. To keep up morale and to bring management’s attention to union support, the union decided to organize a pre-Valentines Day rally. This was not the first protest Local 5 had staged since negotiations had started, but it was the largest. On Saturday, February 12th, over 350 supporters and employees, many walking off their jobs, poured onto the streets outside Powell’s City of Books to witness a faux wedding ceremony. Giant puppets in the image of “Larry Longshoremen” and Michael Powell loomed over the crowd. The couple was joined together in union and commitment—a declaration of what Local 5 hoped for in contract negotiations. Love ballads played above the revelers’ heads and a drum corps and choir kept spirits high. After the ceremony about 30 employees drove to Michael Powell’s house to deliver a Valentine message. While the majority waited in the buses and on the street with their signs, to the curiosity of his neighbors, a few workers went to knock on his door. No one answered, so the group left about 400 valentines with playful messages (a picture of a puppy pleading “puppies are cute and a whole lot of fun, but not as sweet as Contract #1”) urging Corporate managers for a fair contract.
The Valentines Day rally was the beginning of more actions. Often these events were in protest of an unfair labor practice (ULP). A ULP is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), filed by a union or employer with the NLRB for investigation. A union has the legal right to protest any ULP committed by their employer. Also, during bargaining an employer cannot make changes to company policy, or rather, they must keep policy status quo or be in violation of the NLRA. The ULPs filed by the Local 5 consisted of several status quo violations as well as infringements against groups and individual employees. One of the more serious ULP was for the firing of an active union supporter, Marty Kruse. Management fired him for tardiness, yet it was believed that his union activities were the real motive. As no other worker jobs were terminated at this time due to Powell’s often lax and sporadically enforced timekeeping policy, it appeared that management had targeted Kruse for other reasons.
By February 16th, the union had filed five ULPs for charges including: a violation of status quo for unilateral changes in the timekeeping policy; a violation of status quo for changes in hours at the Hoyt warehouse; surveillance of the union caucus by the management note taker; and threats to union supporters during legal collective bargaining. This last charge filed because of threats by a manager toward a worker who walked off the job to join the Valentine’s rally (a ULP protest, so participating employees were legally protected). Four days after the Valentine’s rally, on February 16th, employees from several stores protested this ULP by staging a walkout. Bargaining was going on during this time and many people went to go watch negotiations in a show of support. However, when the corporate team heard of the walk out, they canceled bargaining for the day. According to Corporate Manager and bargaining member Ann Smith, the corporate team was concerned for the store and so felt they needed to go and help the employees still working.
Besides rallies and actions protesting ULPs, one tactic Local 5 had started during campaigning for the union and during negotiations was the use of stickers. Worn by employees, both at rallies and during work, the stickers showed support among workers as well as informed customers at the bookstores. This practice had not been common among most unions, but had proved effective in situations where employees are visible to the public. One of the early stickers, which voiced a core issue, was “No Decisions About Us Without Us.” Other stickers claimed “Booksellers Want It In Writing,” “Vote Yes and Plant the Seed of Democracy,” and “We want a Fast and Fair Election.” Stickers could be made up for whatever key issue needed to be spoken to, and Local 5 made good use of them whenever possible.
With such promoting and rallying among Local 5 advocates, it became quite obvious that not all employees in the bargaining unit supported the union. A group of workers were unhappy with the way the union handled itself, and feared how a union might change and even damage the uniqueness of Powell’s. In the midst of negotiations this faction started a decertification campaign in an attempt to disband the union. If supported by enough employees, a decertification petition can be filed with the NLRB and lead to a deauthorization election. Like the union supporters with their pro-union stickers, the pro-decertification campaign members showed allegiance to their cause by wearing anti-union stickers. Although unable to gather enough momentum to file for decertification, the campaign proved that not all workers agreed with the often ostentatious and contentious actions carried out by the union.
The issue of questionable union activity was keenly emphasized during a Friday, March 17th union action to shut down the shipping department. A mass of people—employees and supporters—gathered across the street from the Burnside store, in front of Powell’s shipping building. The scene was frenzied with the noise of blow horns and shouting and the awe of picket signs. As management and anti-union employees tried to get packages out, some picketers physically blocked the shipping doors. At some point during the picket a tire on a Powell’s van was slashed. Eventually, the police were called in and employees dispersed. Still, no orders went out due to both UPS and the USPS honoring the picket line.
The March 17th action solidified to some an image of Local 5 members as vulgar and vicious. In a letter to staff on March 20th Michael Powell wrote, “last Friday’s actions on the part of the Union and its supporters took the Union’s activities to a new level. The objective was apparently to stop shipment of books from Internet. This group barricaded the main door, interfered with our staff’s ability to do their job and in the course of the activity one of the tires on our van was slashed. Clearly this is not consistent with the Powell’s culture that has been developed over the years.” The union stated that the event was a legal protest of a ULP and shipping was stopped due to the unionized UPS drivers honoring the picket line, rather than any bombardment of the shipping doors. They also protested that it was not an employee that had slashed the tire. As a result of this incident, however, management filed a ULP against the union.
Claims of union supporters’ use of “mob tactics” created a rift in employee unity and within the Portland community. The media picked up on this action. One editorial article by The Oregonian entitled “Will the Union Ruin Powell’s?” about the union’s aggressive tactics ended with this statement, “The scars all of this is likely to leave won’t just be on a business. They’ll be on the heart of the city.” It was becoming more difficult for some citizens to advocate a union that forced them to back combative and extreme behavior. A beloved bookstore, a city institution to many, was in a civil war that affected an expectant community. This divisiveness between management and workers galvanized the need to come to an ultimate agreement and end the conflict.
The Struggle Continues: May Day 2000 and Contract Decisions
Despite efforts to end a union at Powell’s and concerns about the way Local 5 conducted actions, the majority of workers still thought a contract was worth fighting for. As employees were able to watch bargaining sessions, dissatisfaction with Corporate’s behavior at the table spread. Workers could see for themselves the decision-making body at work. About managements conduct, Powell’s employee Steve O’Donnell stated it nicely: “They’re not bad people; they’re just bad with people. The reason the union got started was management making stupid decisions and being insensitive. They’ve continued to do that. A lot of people were on the fence about the union. They aren’t anymore.” What workers wanted was a fair contract and one way they sought to achieve it was to challenge Michael Powell to come to the table.
In seven months of bargaining Michael Powell had not attended any negotiations. He seemed to actively ignore the union when he could. In a public flier ILWU President Brian McWilliams even personally invited the owner to the March 31st bargaining session. In the same flier Powell’s union activist Mary Winzig wrote in a letter to Michael Powell, “Please stop ignoring your employees. We care about your business. We enjoy our jobs. We make Powell’s Books the best bookstore in the world. Talk to us.” ILWU organizer Michael Cannarella and bargaining member John McMahon turned out an article for the April 2nd issue of The Oregonian. In it they noted, “Michael Powell, in statements to the press, demonstrated to us that he apparently had not heard, read or been informed of the union’s proposals.” They made a request for Powell to recognize the union and work toward a good first contract. In response, Michael Powell eventually met with McWilliams privately to discuss concerns.
Monday May 1st, International Labor Day, brought another big union action. The ILWU Convention was held May 1st through the 5th in Portland. Local 5 had increased its local backing by about 300 fellow union brothers and sisters for that week! With this extra support a huge “Contract Now!” rally was put on, which also coincided with Portland’s May Day march. The march was to weave its way through downtown, making stops at several locations and ending at Powell’s Burnside bookstore and the ILWU rally. However, before the fairly peaceful parade got to its final destination, the police stopped the marchers from proceeding onto their designated route. Forcing them by shooting beanbags and applying intimidation, the parade-goers were corralled into the waterfront park and attempts were made to separate people into smaller groups. Eventually the police rerouted the remaining marchers—away from Powell’s. At various points many of the protesters left the march to join the spirited ILWU rally.
Michael Powell, the puppet, bobbed through the crowd. Shouts of encouragement from the visiting ILWU activists to their Local 5 brothers and sisters resonated through the blow horn. Chanting thundered across the streets urging management to speed up contract negotiations. An armed battalion of police in riot gear surrounded the store in an effort to intimidate and keep control in case of conflict. But in the end, the magnitude of the ILWU presence overrode any potential clash with police or others and the rally finished peacefully. The continued support from the ILWU for the rest of the week, which included another peaceful rally outside the store, invigorated workers with fresh optimism.
Even with proclamations for an urgent resolution, almost three months would pass before the bargaining teams would agree on a contract. Management continued to hold out on several points which the union sought after for the integrity of the contract. Other than the closed shop clause, Local 5 bargained for a successor rights clause, wherein if Michael Powell sold the company the successor would recognize the rights of the union and the contract would be upheld. One clause which management wanted and that Local 5 fought against was a management rights clause, which would allow management to make decisions on non-negotiated issues without union approval. Two other important bargaining points were wages, which the union proposed include a cost of living raise at the inception of the contract as well as yearly range adjustments of 3% each year of the contract; and health care, which the union proposed be status quo, while management sought increases in employee payments.
Since April, a federal mediator had joined negotiations. The teams met in separate rooms, filtering information through this outside party. By June a decision had been made on management rights; and proposals on wages and benefits were getting closer. The union agreed to the management rights clause, but included in the Agreement was the stipulation: “Policies and rules (or changes) shall not be arbitrary, unreasonable, discriminatory or inconsistent with any specific provision of this Agreement. Employer will provide the Union with copies of such policies and rules (or any changes) at least fourteen (14) calendar days prior to implementation unless earlier implementation is mandated by federal, state or local laws, ordinances, or regulations.” (Art 5.2.1 Collective Bargaining Agreement. This original agreement still exists in the contract).
In June, the Portland Area Workers Rights Board, a group of community leaders who work to “bring to light and respond to injustices in the workplace”, offered to hear Powell’s and Local 5’s cases. An invitation was made to Michael Powell to attend the June 13th Workers Rights Board meeting, however, neither he nor anyone else from Corporate came. Nine employees testified, offering their perspective on their economic situations. After Local 5 stated their side of negotiations the Workers Rights Board issued three recommendations:
“That the principle of a union shop be adopted as an affirmation of the democratic process and the principle of the majority rule and equal ‘taxation’ for services received.”
“That the union and the employer allow independent experts to examine conflicting financial evaluations of the contract costs to remove confusion over the actual cost of the contract. (The board would help provide that expert, should the parties accept this recommendation).”
“That the employer meet with the Workers’ Rights Board members, as previously suggested, to find ways to move the bargaining process forward, including the possibility of a facilitated meeting to allow both sides to present their perspectives.”
Two weeks after the Workers Rights Board hearing, Michael Powell met with three members to discuss the propositions. Despite the meeting, he was not moved into accepting a union shop.
On July 11th the NLRB made a decision regarding the ULPs filed by Local 5 and Powell’s. The group heard nine out of the ten charges filed by the union and decided that Powell’s was unfair in the firing of Marty Kruse and that changes in the timekeeping policy were unlawful in accordance to rules of bargaining. The NLRB decided that the union was in violation in the March 17th blocking of the shipping department. While issues of months past were at last being settled, the struggle of bargaining continued.
The End and The Beginning
The Local 5 bargaining team had put in much time and energy into working toward a sound first contract. Several of the bargainers who had started in the initial negotiations in the fall of 1999 had left and new bargaining members took on the struggle. In large part because of the hard work and determination of these individuals, bargaining as a collective, a contract was born. After many intensive bargaining sessions a compromise was finally made on the closed shop clause. Effectively, the union would get its closed shop and a small group of anti-union employees (about 15) would be allowed to make mandatory donations to non-profit charities in lieu of union dues. This compromise kept Michael Powell from having to fire current employees who were adamantly opposed to paying union dues. It also fulfilled the union’s need for present and future workers to pay a fair share for cost of representation. After this concession, the rest of negotiations came to somewhat swift, if difficult, agreements.
On August 1st a tentative agreement on a three year contract was announced. The proposed contract included more than 18% in wage increases over three years; a protection of current health care benefits; and a closed shop. The union lost in the fight for a successor rights clause, however, it was not a big loss as there was no imminent fear that Michael Powell would sell. But if, for example, a future employer should decide to contest the union, then by law a new vote for unionization would take place and any strongly organized union should not have a problem gaining a good contract. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the Local 5 and its members to maintain a good and healthy union.
After a long struggle Powell’s bookstore had defied the doubts of the retail business and completed what it set out to do—build a strong union. The vote to ratify the contract was a resounding victory at 293-37. A statement at the time from Mary Winzig, the Local 5’s future first President, spoke to the tiredness of Local 5 bargainers and satisfaction with the results, “I think we got everything we were looking for. It’s a great first contract.” Corporate Manager Ann Smith added, “Yes, there’s relationship mending to do. But I look forward to moving on the the next chapter. It’s a good contract; it gives us a good foundation to build on.”
It took two years of fighting and rallying, multiple appeals of support from the Portland community, many ULP protests, and one powerful and united workforce to gain something so precious as a first contract—for the protection of the livelihood of Powell’s employees. ‘No Decisions About Us Without Us’ had been the proclamation that reverberated throughout the aisles of Powell’s Books and had achieved a new voice for it’s workers. And this new voice needed to be guarded. Setting the tone for the future of Local 5 and Powell’s, Union member Meredith Schafer stated, “The only way we get what’s in that contract is if we stay together and keep on working. The contract is not a gift—we worked for it and we’ll work to keep it.”