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Powells contract negotiators hit the books

Battles recalled as teams prepare to create ground rules

Four years ago, negotiations for the first Powell's Books Inc. union contract begat name-calling, street-side protests and several complaints to the National Labor Relations Board.

The result was a contract on which both sides hope to build before it expires Oct. 1.

The volatile 10-month-long negotiations of 1999 and 2000 will be remembered as the two sides hit the bargaining table later this summer. Sylvie Horn, Powell's human resources manager, said workers and managers will meet soon to discuss preliminary ground rules for the impending contract talks.

Official negotiations, as outlined by the Powell's contract, cannot begin until July 1.

The 2000 contract talks led to several protests by Powell's workers outside the West Burnside Street store. At one point, a Powell's delivery truck tire was damaged; owner Michael Powell, in a National Labor Relations Board complaint, said it was slashed.

Buzz about the impending negotiations began in earnest after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents Powell's workers, held a fund-raiser last Friday to bolster a 'strike fund.' The fund would assist Powell's employees if they walk out this fall.

The 'Rock Out to Walk Out' show, held at the Northeast Portland club Disjecta, featured performances by hip-hop acts and pop bands.

The event's name, though, shouldn't imply that Powell's workers are preparing to hit the bricks on Burnside.

'We have no way of knowing whether they'll walk out or strike,' said Ryan Takas, an organizer with the union. 'We wouldn't do anything without a vote.

'That said, we're interested in giving our membership the maximum amount of options. And if it looks like we're at an impasse and the membership does want to strike, we don't want the (workers) to become homeless, or unable to feed themselves. Like good Boy Scouts, we're just being prepared.'

Asked how much the union wanted to raise for the fund, union employee Ryan Van Winkle said with a laugh: 'The more the merrier. Or, all the money in the world, if you want to pick a target.'

Takas and Van Winkle said the workers have yet to identify which issues will top their list of concerns when talks begin. However, two

concerns are likely to emerge, Takas said: clarifying a new education benefit and addressing spiraling health care costs.

Horn said the law firm of Amburgey & Rubin PC, led by vaunted negotiator Larry Amburgey, will represent Powell's at the table this summer.

The makeup of the Powell's negotiating team will change somewhat. Michael Cannarella, the union representative who helped engineer the 2000 agreement, is no longer with the longshore workers group.

Keith Brooks, an employee at Powell's Hawthorne Boulevard location who was on the first negotiating team, will sit out this round of talks.

Takas and Van Winkle think that the Powell's union, ratified in 1999 by 11 votes (166 to 155), has grown stronger in the last three years.

'Starting the union was definitely worth it,' said Van Winkle, who recently left Powell's after four years to accept the union job. 'The monetary advantages are definitely there, but we also have a better grievance procedure now that's helped plenty of people who, if it wasn't there, would be in much worse situations.'

Neither side offered examples of any ongoing problems between workers and managers. Cathleen Callahan, the local officer in charge of the National Labor Relations Board's Portland office, said all complaints filed during early negotiations have been resolved.

The first Powell's Books workers contract, approved by a 293 to 27 vote, affected 400 workers. The agreement eventually cost owner Michael Powell nearly $2 million in concessions and other labor costs.

The agreement boosted wages by 18 percent over three years. Powell's also agreed to increase its contribution to employees' 401(k) plan.

Horn notes that it's considered far easier to attain a second contract than a first.

'Powell's is still Powell's, and Powell's will always be Powell's,' she said. 'That said, these first three years have been a learning experience for both sides, and I think in that time, we both came to a better understanding of the whole process.'

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.