Powell's is a cultural institution that we as employees are proud to be part of," said Paul Couey, who works in corporate accounts. In fact, it was because of Powell's inculcated values and an identity he cherished so much, Couey maintained, that he and 40 organizing committee members believed the store had to go union. Their campaign, which began last September, ended in victory at the end of April. Portland, Ore.-based Powell's is only one of handful of West Coast bookstores to have unionized employees.

It was close, with a margin of just six votes. "We're obviously very concerned about the outcome," said owner and president Michael Powell. "The thing that was very frustrating," he added, "was that employees would say, `This is a great place to work, but I think there should be a union.' "

Couey explained, "We feel fortunate to be working with such an owner and management group. But it was the logical decision in view of the fact that the store had reached a certain size and the employees needed a legal structure in which to operate." The next step is to negotiate a contract, which may take months.

The two main issues of the campaign were wage increases and a corporate restructuring that changed job definitions without employee input. Last fall, employees, most of whom are paid an hourly wage, received an e-mail that announced a 3% cap on raises, with the majority receiving just 2%. This followed two significant developments at Powell's that had led employees to expect the store could afford better.

In the spring of 1998, a building expansion was begun, a project estimated to cost $3.5 million. "Employees worried about the unprecedented expansion at such a difficult time for bookstores, and were told that record profits underwrote and justified it," said Couey.

The other development was a restructuring of employee roles. Despite its size, Powell's had a system that gave it the feel of a small neighborhood store. Section heads were responsible for everything from purchasing to inventory control and customer relations. With the restructuring, teams of "specialists" were organized and made responsible for larger sections and particular tasks such as returns. "We thought it was a growing experience," said Powell. "They thought it took away turf."

The restructuring, Couey said, was not really the issue. It was more that employees did not feel they had been given a voice in the change, and that there was no formal channel for communication with management. A previous unsuccessful unionizing campaign in the early 1990s was responsible for many of the significant benefits that Powell's employees currently enjoy.

Despite the close vote, Couey is optimistic that contract negotiations will proceed smoothly. The National Labor Relations Act guarantees the status quo of the employee handbook, which contains most of the benefits that are part of the Powell's compensation package. "And we, of course, will negotiate in good faith," said Powell, who has a reputation as a progressive business leader in Portland, although whether that means he will continue the profit-sharing he initiated a few years ago is up in the air. "Now, everything is negotiable," he said.

As to postelection fallout, Couey maintained the vote actually helped clear the air. "It's been gratifying," he said, "that since the election, people who voted `no' have asked for input in framing the contract.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), meanwhile, is trumpeting the Powell's vote as "giving Oregon labor one of its largest victories in the '90s." And with 30 million members nationwide, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has promised that the federation will promote a unionized Powell's as an important online resource for obtaining books.