First of multiple walkouts, a one-day unfair labor practice
strike proves a success for workers.
By Don McIntosh
No contract and alleged labor law violations drove employees at Powells Books to wage a one-day strike Nov. 12.
More than 400 workers at Powells, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, have been without a contract since their first agreement expired Oct. 2. On Nov. 11 they voted overwhelmingly to initiate the first of as many as three one-day strikes to protest unfair labor practices.
In seven charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, members of Local 5 allege that Powells managers have singled out union leaders for harassment, disciplining them for using work e-mail for union communications.
The two sides are still meeting in contract negotiations, but several issues are preventing agreement, particularly wages and health benefits. Management is proposing two percent annual increases; the union proposes six to seven percent. And Powells wants a substantial increase in employees out-of-pocket payments toward their monthly health insurance premiums. Workers currently pay $32.90 a month for individual coverage and as much as $250 for family coverage, plus a $100 annual deductible.
At the packed strike vote meeting Nov. 11, it was clear that workers were feeling pushed too far by management, said Local 5 President Mary Winzig.
After 11 years at Powells, Im almost making a living wage, Powells employee Shelley Brannan told the press. Im a loyal employee and I love my job, but when I saw managements proposal I was shocked.
There was a lot of emotion on both sides said of the strike vote, Winzig said. Going on strike is really scary and very serious.
Strikes are rare, even more so at retail establishments, very few of which are unionized outside of grocery. Would Powells customers show solidarity with workers by refusing to cross picket lines?
At Powells 10th and Burnside flagship store on the day
of the strike, workers circled all entrances, asking customers not to enter.
Picket lines mean dont cross! Shop tomorrow, not today!
Some customers agreed not to enter after being approached by strikers. But many crossed anyway, stepping stealthily through the rotating picket line, and in some cases hiding faces behind hands.
Still, it was clear business was down substantially.
Ann Smith, Powells CEO for operations, told the Labor Press that the store was quiet inside except for the chants and bullhorns of the picketers.
And both sides agreed that very few workers crossed picketlines to work.
At the shipping department, a virtual blockade by workers, joined by their fellow unionists in longshore and about 40 yellow-T-shirted members of the Laborers Union, succeeded in halting outgoing shipments. Smith said to avoid the chaos, the company cancelled shipments for the day.
Negotiations resumed the following day.
Don McIntosh is an associate editor at the Northwest Labor Press. This article originally appeared in a slighltly different format in an earlier issue of the Northwest Labor Press (www.nwlaborpress.org) and is reprinted with permission.
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Last Updated: January 29, 2003