The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, which has represented the employees of Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., since 1999, announced last week that it has filed numerous grievances with the bookstore's management over the ongoing dispute over the store's rehiring process.
In a statement released on May 6, the union said that 150 Powell's workers, out of some 340 laid off in March of 2020, remain out of work. As time has passed, the store hired back some staff to fulfill online orders, and has begun hiring more and more workers as the chain edges closer to normal operations. A representative from Powell's told Willamette Week that in the most recent round of hires, conducted last month, the store filled 46 jobs, 41 of which went to union employees.
Under dispute is whether or not Powell's is obliged to honor employees' prior seniority, salaries, and benefits. The union says that the store, in a string of emails last year, had agreed to honor the employees' work history upon rehiring. The store, on the other hand, asserts that, since more than 12 months have passed, they are under no such obligation, and has insisted that former employees reapply for their old jobs.
How this came to pass has become a matter of both sides offering differing versions of events, and as a result, the narrative is somewhat muddled. In April, Powell's management issued a statement that it had offered the union extended terms by which it would rehire employees under the existing contract for six months. The terms of the contract covering job rehires are, according to the union, as follows:
"Laid-off employees who desire the right to reinstatement will have up to two (2) calendar days to preference in writing up to two (2) job titles. A laid-off employee’s first preference must be their own job title unless it no longer exists in which case they may preference a different job title or group. The intent and primary objective of this recall procedure is to provide regular employees whose employment has been terminated in a layoff with priority rights to reinstatement to the former job title and location. Recall rights are extended to laid-off employees who were regular employees at the time of the layoff."
The store told PW that their offer to extend these terms for six months was made to the union as a "final offer"—indicating it was unwilling to negotiate—but that the union proposed a counteroffer, thus indicating to the store the union had rejected the store's terms. The store then went ahead and started posting job openings.
The union, on the other hand, has said that the store management made clear that, due to the length of the layoffs, which have now stretched on for more than a year, Powell's considers the terms agreed to by the employees' contracts no longer applicable. No mention of an offer of a six-month extension was made by the union. The union claims store management abruptly ended communication in April.
Publicly, ILWU Local 5 has been appealing to management's sense of loyalty, and has called out Emily Powell personally for being absent from communications with former employees. The union noted in its most recent release that among those impacted by the layoffs and hiring practices are a number of workers who "have worked at the bookstore for decades," adding that some "were the very individuals who provided [Emily Powell] training in the stacks and at the book buying counter as she learned about the ins and outs of the business her father, Michael Powell, and grandfather, Walter Powell, built."
The union added: "Despite a debt of gratitude owed to those workers who have invested their lives in making Powell’s the incredible independent bookstore it is, Emily and Powell’s management have opted to abandon lifelong booksellers, instead seeking to fill positions by a general call to the public."
The union has given management 60 days to reply to the grievances, after which it is likely to pursue arbitration.