On Friday, The New York Times noted that U.S. work stoppages are poised to reach a five-year high this fall. Today in Portland, that labor unrest received a prominent platform: the sidewalk along West Burnside Street, as Powell’s employees walked off the job and shut down the flagship City of Books for Labor Day.
As WW previously reported, the conflict between Powell’s unionized workers and company management is largely about money. Employees at three stores, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, say wages haven’t kept pace with inflation and many of the bookkeepers make below the Portland region’s living wage. Powell’s says its contract offer includes competitive wages and a generous health plan.
Last week, in advance of its one-day strike, ILWU Local 5 filed a unfair labor practices complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, accusing Powell’s of failing to meaningfully consider its contract proposals and stalling the negotiations.
The company declared late last week it would close stores on the day of the strike.
“It breaks my heart to close for any period of time,” said Powell’s owner and president Emily Powell in a statement. “We’re doing everything we can to maintain a sustainable business in a challenging economic and retail climate….We know this process is tough on everyone, but we believe in the work and our track record of reaching sustainable and fair pathways forward.”
The picket outside the City of Books today was a primer in the latest key players in Portland organized labor. Along with the ILWU, Powell’s workers were joined by the Democratic Socialists of America’s Portland chapter (which recently aided in organizing several Burgerville locations), the New Seasons Labor Union (which continues to hold union votes at each grocery store), and unions representing teachers and nurses (both of whom are discussing strikes in the coming months).
“The solidarity of all unions is to make a simple demand,” wrote Local 5 spokesperson Myka Dubay in a statement. “Powell’s should return to the table; participate in the process by negotiating with the Union; and do so in good faith as required by federal labor law.”
Dubay adds that bargaining resumes Tuesday. “Hopefully, the company listens to us today and negotiates in good faith with us tomorrow, which is explicitly what our strike was about today. Whatever we do next as a union is dependent on how Powell’s chooses to respond tomorrow.”