As with any relationship, we see both positive as well as problematic issues with how Powell’s is reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic. We acknowledge there is no playbook for how to best approach the situation and for what is going well, we want to give Powell’s accolades:
The measures taken to ensure those workers who have been recalled are safe, provided with sufficient PPE, are in an environment that allows for social distancing, and the flexibility of allowing workers who are otherwise concerned about their personal health and wellbeing to be excused from the workplace have all been to the highest caliber. In short, we praise Powell’s for their efforts on this. Similar as well with their approach for when the stores are re-opened (including directional aisles, plexiglass guards, and a requirement for customers to wear masks) - this too deserves praise for their consideration for employees as well as customer safety.
However, not everything about how Powell’s is treating its employees deserves praise. The single most pressing issue is the fact that Powell’s has refused to work with the union on issues regarding employee wage and benefits levels when they are returned to the workplace. To be clear, ILWU Local 5 believes the ethical treatment of workers in this unprecedented moment is as follows:
When Powell’s employees are returned to work, they should be guaranteed their former hourly wage as well as benefits level. Powell’s workers deserve to hold onto the wage and benefits they have achieved.
Local 5 will continue to engage the Company on this issue as we look towards the future - an incredible bookstore staffed by incredible, knowledgeable and passionate booksellers.
In the meantime, for anyone who wishes to show their support for the workers of Powell’s, please shop for books through our partner link: https://www.ilwulocal5.com/Support/ where 7.5% of every sale directly supports the workers of Powell’s.
IN RESPONSE TO POWELL’S BOOKS, INC. STATEMENT: 3/27/20
While frontline booksellers, shelvers, and shippers remain on layoff status, Powell’s has trumpeted the fact that “over 100 workers” have been brought back to work. In fact, to date, only 49 frontline bookstore workers have been recalled to their former positions. The other 51+ are management staff, doing frontline bookseller, shelver, and shipping work, instead of the union workers who were trained to do this work and did that work everyday.
Today, ILWU Local 5 issued a formal challenge to Powell's actions (assigning work to higher paid, non-union staff while union staff are laid off). While we understand the difficult nature of the situation COVID-19 has created in our society, we remain incredibly disappointed in how Powell’s has dealt with this situation and treated workers. Local 5 explicitly denounces the misleading statements made by Emily Powell with regards to her statement on 03/27/2020 of bringing back “over 100 workers”. These distinctions are important. We cannot stand by while Powell’s misleads the public and so issue the above public statement to correct the record.
We are gravely disappointed in both the lack of support Powell’s has given its workers and the leadership it has provided for the community. While many other small businesses who are hurting have found ways to support and assist their staff during this time, reaching out to the greater community for support and ideas, the leader ‒ arguably ‒ of the independent bookselling world has so far done the bare minimum. We know Powell’s can do better than this. Over the last 49 years, Powell’s and the Powell family have made millions of dollars through the hard work of booksellers and the good will of the community. To not go above and beyond for those who made Powell’s successful is an injury of the greatest degree.
ILWU Local 5 is here for our members in their time of greatest need.
ILWU Local 5 appreciates the decision to close retail locations for the safety of workers and customers, particularly given the current pandemic. This was the right decision for our community. We are however disappointed in the lack of support Powell's is committing to those who are responsible for the Company's success. It is the labor, intelligence and heart of the employees that has made Powell's the shining beacon of success within the independent book-selling world. The decision to lay workers off without reasonable provisions for their well-being will have a deep and lasting impact not only to them, but to the community at large. In this society, for any crisis event, it appears it is the workers who take the brunt of trauma. We find this wholly unacceptable on every level. There must be a better way - one that provides social safety nets for all workers. We will continue that struggle... In the meantime, Local 5 continues to communicate with the company and express our ideals as to how workers should be treated. As far as how the community can help, Local 5 has set up a worker relief fund on our website (www.ilwulocal5.com).
ILWU Local 5, the union representing Powell’s Books employees since 1999, appreciates the decision to close the retail locations of the bookstore. The safety of workers and customers is always of paramount concern, especially given the current global pandemic. As with most emergencies, those that suffer the most are workers and marginalized communities. We do not believe this to be appropriate or fair and in this moment we continue to urge all Employers, including Powell’s Books, to continue to support workers in any and every way possible. The loss of profit is nothing compared to the lifelong trauma such a loss of income and benefits are likely to have for individuals. ILWU has a long time saying we live by: “An Injury to One Is An Injury To All”. We call upon all to make this moment count and support every one in our community in every way we can.
ILWU Local 5 has fielded numerous requests to issue a statement regarding Powell’s decision to continue to list Andy Ngô’s book in their online catalog. The Local’s official statement is as follows:
We stand against Andy Ngô and everything he represents. His rhetoric is antithetical to everything we hold dear as a union. We do not support or condone his actions, and we are sickened by the harm he has inflicted on our community. We are dismayed that Hachette (@HachetteUS) chose to legitimize him with a publishing deal, and encourage anyone concerned with the broad reach of Ngô’s propaganda to contact the publisher who read his manuscript and deemed it worthy of a wider audience. They can be reached at email@example.com.
That said, what Powell’s carries in their stores or online is not something the Local can dictate, nor is it something the company is obligated to negotiate with us. We can, and often do, disagree with books stocked on their shelves that do not uphold our core values as a union, but we cannot legally force their removal. That choice is Powell’s alone to make.
Booksellers, too, get to make some incredibly important choices on a regular basis. In collaboration with Powell’s management, our members have worked hard to amplify marginalized voices in the retail locations and online: dedicating permanent display space to children’s books featuring protagonists of color and young adult LGBTQIA+ books; curating recurring displays of work by transgender and nonbinary authors; rearranging entire rooms to afford more visibility to books by and about BIPOC and members of the LGBTQIA+ community; collaborating with local social justice organizations on reading lists, displays, online content, and fundraising efforts; and writing thousands upon thousands of reviews to highlight underrepresented authors and work in the aisles and online. In every step of their work as booksellers, our members make choices that reflect our core values as a union. ILWU Local 5 is tremendously proud of this work our members have been doing for years and will continue to do for years to come.
With regards to the ongoing discussion between the community and Powell’s Books, Inc.:
The priority of ILWU Local 5 is the safety of our members at work. Since Powell’s announcement that they would continue to list Ngô’s book in their online catalog, we have been in regular communication with company representatives. They have assured us that their top priority is the safety of their staff and customers, and have shared the steps they have taken with us. It is of the utmost importance that workers — who were afforded no opportunity to weigh in on this decision, but are now subject to its consequences — remain safe.