by Anna Simon

Last Sunday afternoon was busier than usual at Powell's on Burnside. In addition to the casual weekend shoppers drifting through the store, a large group of employees on their lunch break stood outside the main entrance with balloons, leaflets, and a bullhorn. Far from pushing a super sale, workers were amplifying their gripes about the current Powell's worker contract negotiations. Without a union contract since October 1, the employees of America's largest independent bookstore lined the sidewalk, shouting, "What do we want? Healthcare!" and, referring to a meager proposed pay increase, "One percent won't pay my rent!"

This is the first contract negotiation since Powell's employees formed a union three years ago--and it's gotten off to a rocky start. The friction between management and employees is particularly unflattering for Powell's, one of Portland's best-known stores. The company touts itself as a model for independent, progressive businesses, one that allegedly treasures its workers as prized resources. Negotiations that began last summer have come to a standstill, as workers refuse to accept Powell's contract offer, which they say will undercut wages and increase the cost of healthcare.

Powell's proposed labor contract is giving workers heartache for two primary reasons: it offers only a two percent yearly wage increase, but at the same time doubles monthly health care premiums. According to the State of Oregon, the 2003 consumer price index--that's the cost of living--will rise an estimated 3.3%. So despite the proposed yearly raise, employees would be left with less money and larger doctor bills. Management's unsatisfactory offer comes on top of a gradual decrease in the number of Powell's employees since the store unionized in 2000. Though downscaling post-union may be a coincidence, it seems contrary to Powell's successful bottom line. While small bookstores fold and Internet companies like still lose money every year, reported a 22% growth in October 2002 over the previous year, according to their website.

"It makes us feel like they don't want us here," says Steve O'Donnell, a history sections worker and purchaser at Burnside for eight years. "It's a Wal-Mart attitude toward employees--like they want college kids instead of us," he adds. "The company makes lots of money and we're just asking for the status quo."

"We hope this resolves soon. We just want to get back to the business of selling books," says Mary Winzig, president of ILWU Local 5, and Powell's employee of eight years. At press time, Local 5 and Powell's were going back to the bargaining table sometime this week. Union negotiators have asked management to return with a more detailed explanation of why, in layman's terms, they're trying to sell their employees short.