On November 9, following nine months of negotiations, Powell’s Books workers rejected a tentative contract with Powell’s management. According to union representative Myka Dubay, “79% of Powell's workers voted, and 62% voted no.” This is the first contract rejection since 2000, when employees unionized with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local #5.
The previous Powell's contract ran out on June 7, and workers were unwilling to accept the management’s August 11 proposed contract. The union staged a walkout on Labor Day, resulting in the daylong closure of all three Powell’s locations on September 4.
Powell’s management called the rejection “another in a series of setbacks.” In the statement, Powell’s president and owner Emily Powell is quoted as saying, “The proposal we developed in partnership with the union last month represented our best offer. The union accepted our proposal and committed to recommending it for a 'yes’ vote. Unfortunately, a union officer then led a ‘vote no’ campaign against the agreement, resulting in the employees rejecting the proposal.”
Last week’s contract rejection prompted Powell’s to charge the union with unfair labor practice. According to ILWU Local #5’s Dubay, Powell’s on November 13 “filed a ‘bad faith bargaining’ charge against the union, because the contract was voted down in a democratic election. To be clear, members voting in a democratic election, rejecting the contract, is not what ‘bad faith bargaining’ is.”
In return, Dubay said, the union filed its own ULP against Powell’s management on November 14, asserting that the company used “intimidation” and a “chilling effect” to keep workers from voting against the terms of the contract.
Throughout negotiations, employees have focused on a livable wage. Minimum wage in Portland, Ore., rose from $15 to $15.45 per hour in July, and union reps have reported that many incoming Powell’s employees start at $16.25 per hour, above minimum wage but below the estimated local living wage of $21.85 per hour.
The management statement notes that Powell’s “agreed to the union’s proposals on health insurance deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums” earlier this year, and that the latest “contract proposal provides either a 10% or 11.7% increase in wages for the majority of Powell’s employees the first of the month following ratification. Our entry level and level two employees would earn a minimum of $17 and $17.25 per hour for entry level starting wage and can proceed to over $25 per hour over the life of the contract.”
Unhappy with these terms, Powell’s union representatives requested that management return to negotiations “immediately after the votes were tallied,” according to an ILWU Local #5 statement. “While the company has agreed to meet in a closed door ‘sidebar’ discussion with the Union bargaining team, the company has not agreed to or proposed bargaining dates,” the union stated on November 15.
According to the company’s press release, which is at odds with the union account, Powell’s management says it “continues to negotiate in good faith in an attempt to produce a sustainable contract that improves wages and benefits for its employees while also allowing the company to stay competitive in an ever-evolving marketplace.”