No "Book-Shelving Monkeys" 

Powell's Union Boss Reflects on 10 Years of Book Slinging

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THE 400 UNION WORKERS who staff Portland landmark Powell's Books are celebrating their union's 10th anniversary with a bang. On Friday, August 27, Powell's employee bands will play at "Rock Out to Walk Out," a concert raising money for a strike fund. Although ILWU Local 5 (yes, they really are in the longshoremen's and warehouse union) isn't currently planning a strike, negotiations on a new contract start next summer. And, as Ryan Van Winkle, union board president (and sci-fi room worker) explains, it pays to be ready.

MERCURY: As a union rep, how do you feel about working at Powell's?

RYAN VAN WINKLE: I was born in Oregon, and my family moved to Beaverton in 1987, when I was in the seventh grade. I pretty much lived at the Beaverton Powell's. I was just an avid reader. When I got a job at Powell's, it was just awesome.

What are the big issues you guys in the union deal with? What spurred the union to form in the first place?

The biggest issues really boil down to trying to protect our health care. Also, there had been a wage freeze for the two years before I started, so no one was getting raises even though the company appeared to be doing very well. People also felt like they had no control at work, like they went from being booksellers intimately involved with the bookselling process to sort of [being] "shelving monkeys." As Powell's got bigger and bigger, it started to step further and further away from a mom-and-pop operation to a much more corporate-minded organization.

What have negotiations been like in the past?

I think Powell's as an organization has gotten more comfortable with dealing with Local 5, and we've gotten savvier about how to deal with the company. Contention isn't fun; we don't get a kick out of it. Everyone who works at Powell's more than just likes working there, we're really committed to seeing the company succeed and thrive. Unrest is something we'd like to avoid.

So how's business? Do you think negotiations next year will be rough?

We don't get straight numbers from the company, that's their information that they don't share with anyone. I just have my experience from the store, and this month it's been super crazy. Super busy. But Powell's is a unique entity in the book biz. There's not really anything like it anywhere. So comparing Powell's to the book industry is sort of an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Does the staff talk about what's going on with the book business? Do you worry you might be out of a job in the near future?

It's something we talk about all the time. I don't know if we see people buying fewer books, but I think people might be becoming savvier about what they buy. The vast majority of books that have ever been written are out of print and are only available in a hard-copy form. So for the foreseeable future, I think we're going to be in a good place. There's still going to be a need for a bookstore.

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