Despite a raucous Wednesday-morning walkout and a silent Saturday-night vigil, Powell's employees insist they're happy with their jobs--they just want to make sure they stay happy.
Their pursuit of happiness received a setback on Friday when managers of the bookstore called off a scheduled meeting with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 405 Powell's employees. The ILWU is seeking a new three-year agreement, its first renegotiation since the protracted talks that yielded bookstore employees their first union contract in 2000 (see "Powell's City Divided," WW, March 15, 2000). The most contentious issues center on health benefits and pay raises. The median pay at Powell's is $11.19 per hour. The union wants annual 6 percent pay hikes to continue during the new three-year contract. Management is offering 3 percent.
As for health care, employees say they are happy with their current plan, for which they now pay a monthly premium ranging from $33 to $51 depending on the number of hours worked. Union officials say management first proposed raising the monthly premiums by $38 but has since lowered the requested increase to $27. The union, however, is asking for the premiums to remain unchanged.
And, Powell's being Powell's, there's also the issue of free expression. On Wednesday, union members walked off the job downtown, on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and in Beaverton, claiming that employees using internal email to discuss union activities have been called into meetings with managers, while emails regarding lunch plans or other personal business draw no such scrutiny.
"It makes the employees very uncomfortable and stressed out," says Ryan Van Winkle, an representative for the union, which has filed seven claims of unfair labor practices against the bookstore.
At the front door of the downtown Powell's on Wednesday, union members were asking patrons to shop elsewhere for one day. Van Winkle say the union is seeking a pledge for a broader boycott if needed and has "a lot of backing" from employees.
The next negotiating session is scheduled for Nov. 25.