Powell's City of Books is among Portland's most universally-loved attractions, but the workers who curate Powell's recommendation shelves and assist hordes of bookworms everyday say they're underpaid, making "poverty wages" at what is otherwise a dream job for many book lovers.
After months of attempting to negotiate a new, fair contract with management, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5, Powell's labor union, are weighing further action. Earlier this week, a majority of Powell's workers from ILWU Local 5 voted to authorize a strike—out of the 80% of union members who voted for strike authorization, 92% voted yes. The vote doesn't mean workers are on strike right away, but rather that the union's bargaining team can call for a strike if it becomes necessary during ongoing negotiations with Powell's management.
"While we hope the Company will accept that invitation and bargain in good faith, this vote signals that Powell’s workers are prepared to respond accordingly if they don’t," ILWU Local 5 posted on Twitter today. "Please note: this is NOT a call for a boycott; it’s a call for solidarity. If that ever changes, we’ll be really loud about it!"
Instead of a boycott, union members are asking supporters to donate to ILWU Local 5's strike fund, which will help keep workers afloat in case of a labor strike.
ILWU Local 5 was formed to represent Powell's workers in 2000, and the union now also represents employees from the Oregon Historical Society, Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, and the Community Cycling Center. If workers were to go on strike, it would be Powell's first labor strike in 20 years.
ILWU Local 5 Union Representative Myka Dubay told the Mercury in a phone interview yesterday that union employees have been working on an expired contract since June 7. Dubay said Powell's management is expected to come back to the bargaining table with their next offer at the end of August.
"We would much prefer to come to the table a lot sooner. We're not done, we want to keep talking and negotiating with Powell's and try to come to an agreement," Dubay said. "Unfortunately, we won't really know [our next steps] until Powell's responds to us."
A email statement provided to the Mercury by Powell's Books says the bookstore remains "committed to the bargaining process."
"Though we have not been informed directly of a strike vote or an intent to strike, we deeply value our employees and respect their right to engage in protected union activity. Powell's Books has successfully engaged in contract negotiations with ILWU Local 5 for more than two decades, each time finding common ground that unites us," Powell's statement reads. "Our latest proposal includes immediate wage increases and further upholds excellent healthcare benefits that allow us to remain competitive in a challenging economic environment for retail. We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement soon that is sustainable and honors our employees."
Dubay said workers and management are close to negotiating a deal about expanded healthcare coverage, but the union and Powell's leaders diverge when it comes to acceptable pay. Right now, the starting wage for Powell's employees is $15.45: the minimum wage for all workers in the Portland Metro area as of July 1. Dubay said workers want a "path to a living wage" in their new contract.
"We went to see ranges where people can be a bookseller at Powell's and earn more than $20 an hour. Right now, our level one and two booksellers—most of the workers you'll see in the store—cap out at $19 an hour," Dubay said. "That's just not affordable or sustainable for people to be able to live in Portland or even near Portland and work at Powell's."
In an online petition started in April, workers anonymously testified about how they're impacted by low wages at work.
“Powell’s low wages are demoralizing. With all we have to juggle during a work day, knowing that many of us are struggling to make rent and feed ourselves is absurd. I go home frustrated, stressed out, and often on the verge of panic attacks thinking about how my labor is used. I’m taken advantage of, we all are," one person said. "Powell’s workers make these stores run properly; our paychecks should reflect that.”
Another employee said they may be forced to start living in their car sometime this year because they "cannot afford rent" at their current wage.
"I currently struggle to feed myself while also trying to help feed my coworkers who cannot afford food," the employee testified. "Shame on the company for continuing to pay us poverty wages.”
Dubay has worked at Powell's since 2015, and they say there's a lot about the job they find rewarding.
"I love books, and I love touching books and talking about books. My coworkers and I see [working at Powell's] as a way to connect people with books; to build community," Dubay told the Mercury. "But we're seeing people who want to stay at Powell's leave because they just can't afford to stay. Then then we lose really good workers who would have stayed if they were paid even just like $1 or $2 more an hour."
The world's largest independent bookstore, which takes up an entire downtown block, is one of the rare spots that appeals to locals and tourists alike. In addition to the flagship downtown store, Powell's also operates two other brick-and-mortar locations in the Portland area, one on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and one in Beaverton, and their online shop ships all over the world.
While Powell's has been upfront about their financial struggles in recent years, especially in the wake of the pandemic, Dubay said management hasn't been transparent with the union about their financials.
"They never say, 'We can't afford that or that's too much money,'" Dubay said. "If they did, then we'd actually get to look at their books...and they don't want us to see the numbers. We did ask if our proposal was unaffordable, and they said it's not about affordability."
Dubay said in the coming weeks, union members plan on taking more "feisty actions," unencumbered by the clauses in their now-expired contract. They said the union will share more details of such actions on social media over the next month while they wait for Powell's to return with an offer.
While workers may have been willing to put up with lower-than-desired wages in the past, Dubay said a lot has changed in the last few years.
"Workers are tired of being treated in certain ways and are unwilling to accept it anymore. When our workers who were laid off in the pandemic received unemployment and federal assistance that was more than their wages, they got to feel what it was like to thrive a little bit," Dubay said. "For the first time, they felt what it was like to earn enough money to pay bills, rent, buy groceries, and also do some fun stuff. Now that we're back at our jobs that want to continue paying lower wages, workers are fed up with it."