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Union Representing Powell’s Workers Files Grievances Against Bookstore for Rehiring Process

If an agreement can’t be reached by both parties after a grievance is filed, it can lead to arbitration.

The union representing workers at Powell’s Books announced May 6 it had filed several grievances with management for what it alleges are violations of the labor agreement between the union and the bookstore.

Last month, Powell’s announced it would be hiring workers as it emerged from the pandemic, but would not rehire laid-off workers back into their positions without them applying from scratch like any other hopeful.

That, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5 asserts, is a violation of its labor agreement—though Powell’s maintains no such agreement was ever cemented into place and that labor negotiations failed to come to fruition in April.

If an agreement can’t be reached by both parties after a grievance is filed, it can lead to eventual arbitration.

Myka Dubay, representative of the union, tells WW Powell’s has 60 days to respond to the grievances.

“People are outraged that Powell’s did this to them,” Dubay says, adding that Powell’s has offered little communication with the union since the announcement, aside from required housekeeping.

A Powell’s spokesperson says that in the company’s latest round of hiring, which just wrapped up, 41 of the available 46 positions were filled by former Powell’s employees who were laid off and had to apply afresh, suggesting Powell’s is opting to hire back former employees over other applicants.

The announcement of its rehiring campaign came in the form of an open letter from Powell’s CEO Patrick Bassett on April 6, in which he announced that the bookstore would soon start to hire employees back into its workforce as all three locations opened up for business after having been shuttered for most of the pandemic.

But Bassett made it clear Powell’s wasn’t hiring back laid-off workers to their former positions because of what he says was a failure to reach a contract compromise with the union. Instead, Powell’s was starting this hiring round from the ground up, and if laid-off workers wanted a job, they’d have to apply just like anyone else.

That came as a surprise to the union, which accused Powell’s of violating its agreement with the union by refusing to rehire laid-off workers without a reapplication process.

Powell’s argued that such an agreement had never been reached and stood by its decision.

But today, the union reaffirmed its intent to fight Powell’s on the decision: It’s deeply angered by the bookstore’s decision and filed multiple grievances for “breach of contract” for the “flagrant violations of the labor agreement currently in place between Powell’s and the union,” according to a press release.

A company spokesperson says Powell’s stands by its assertion that it violated no labor agreement rules.

Bassett’s open letter on May 6 detailed what the company saw as a failure between it and the union to reach a labor agreement.

“Powell’s has reached out to the union on two occasions to find solutions that go above and beyond the labor contract, without success,” wrote Bassett. “Our most recent proposal would have temporarily extended former employees’ access to the recall process for a period of six months as well as reinstate their previous paid-time-off accrual rate, which would be significant to our longer-term former employees.”

“Unfortunately, the union did not accept this offer,” he added. “This means the original contract language regarding loss of all seniority and employment rights applies, and we will begin to advertise job openings.”

The union argued that it had sent a counterproposal to Powell’s, but was greeted by Bassett’s letter as the response.

But despite the union’s anger, Dubay says the union still wants Portlanders to frequent the bookstore.

“We’re not calling for a boycott, we still want people to shop at Powell’s and shop the union,” Dubay tells WW. “That will get our workers back.”