By Louis Chase and Griffin Turek
This past Labor Day, workers at all three of Portland’s Powell’s Books locations went on a one-day Unfair Labor Practice strike to protest alleged stalling by management amidst negotiations for an 8th union contract. Workers at these Powell’s locations started picketing at 9:30 a.m., and subsequently converged on Powell’s City of Books, the flagship Powell’s location on Burnside, for a rally at 1:00 pm. The previous contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5, the union representing several hundred Powell’s workers, and Powell’s management, expired in June. The sticking point in the current iteration of contract renewals was about wages, with Powell’s management growing unresponsive towards demands for a higher starting salary. The ILWU cited that the most generous base wage offered by Powell’s management in contract negotiations was over $5/hr below the living wage for a single adult in Portland — as reported by the MIT Living Wage calculator.
Powell’s workers first unionized with the ILWU in 1999 and started the union’s Portland-area local, ILWU Local 5, which has since expanded and currently represents workers at eight employers, according to their website. Powell’s workers last went on strike in 2003 over problems with negotiations for their second contract. 20 years later, contract negotiations have once again stalled, leading to the 2023 “No Labor Day” strike.
This year’s strike was in protest of alleged Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) being demonstrated by Powell’s management. According to ILWU Local 5 bargaining team member and former Quest editor, Michelle Carroll ’10, Powell’s management has been stalling on sitting down for contract negotiations and putting off meetings with union representatives, which qualifies as ULP under federal statutes. The goal of the strike was to raise awareness of workers’ grievances and hopefully accelerate the contract talks. In the build-up to the strike, the union sent out surveys polling their members. In the strike authorization vote, 80% of Powell’s union members responded and 92% voted in favor of a strike.
Through informational picketing sessions, the ILWU has reached out to the public, raising awareness of their ongoing struggles with contract negotiations. According to Carroll, raising public awareness attracted the attention of other Portland unions, especially in the build up to the Labor Day strike. Other unions have voiced their support for the Powell’s Labor Day strike, and several authors circulated a pledge to avoid crossing the Powell’s picket line by declining to participate in events during the strike. Powell’s workers have also circulated a solidarity petition with over 10,000 signatures as of the time of writing. Importantly, union members are not calling for a boycott of Powell’s Books, and ILWU Local 5 even has an affiliate link through which Powell’s customers and sellers can support their strike fund.
Since the Labor Day strike, Powell’s workers have returned to work without a contract. Talks between Powell’s management and the ILWU Local 5 bargaining team resumed the day after the strike. It remains to be seen whether a satisfactory contract will be agreed upon any time soon, so the future for Powell’s workers lies filled with uncertainty and the possibility of future labor actions.