by Anna Simon

Last Wednesday, Powell's employees gave a glimpse of what Christmas could be like. Unhappy about ongoing contract negotiations, masses of workers paraded in noisy picket lines around the store's entryways, virtually shutting down the flagship store along Burnside. A few shoppers did ignore the picket line's request to "shop tomorrow" and broke through the lines. But even then they were left to browse in a nearly empty store.

All told, on Wednesday nearly 95 percent of all employees at Powell's downtown, Hawthorne, and Beaverton stores called in sick, walked out, or otherwise protested their continuing concern that Powell's is not taking their demands seriously. The daylong strike was intended as a warning shot across the bow. The employees said they were being gracious: striking on a Wednesday, traditionally the slowest sales day of the week, and giving warning early enough before the busy and lucrative holiday season sets in.

"We're giving management the opportunity to do the right thing," explained Ryan Van Winkle, an ILWU Local 5 representative. "No one expects to be rich working here, but they don't have to undercut us," he added.

Employees have been negotiating since August, asking for another three-year contract and an extra three-percent wage increase in addition to the yearly three percent across the board increase they currently receive. Powell's has returned offers that concede wage increases but hack away at healthcare coverage.

At press time, the bookstore--prided locally as an independent business beacon in a cold, corporate world-- continues to stall amid contract negotiations with its 400-plus employees. "We're in limbo now--things are still at status quo," said Van Winkle.

Moreover, as Powell's management hems and haws, workers say they are also playing unfairly, following union representatives at work and monitoring email for union activity. Last Wednesday's walkout was called to bring attention to both the absent contract and management bullying.

"We have seven unfair labor practices documented against union members, including super-supervision and the monitoring of office emails for union activity," says ILWU Local 5 President Mary Winzig, who reports being followed by her supervisors.

Ann Smith, CEO of Operations, says the charges are completely unfounded. "We treat union officers the same as any other employee," she says. "I would suggest that what the union is asking for is not realistic considering the current economy, nor is it realistic considering our increased healthcare cost. The cost of our healthcare plan increased 82 percent over the last three years," she adds.

At press time, Powell's latest proposal offers a three-percent annual wage increase, half of what the union is requesting. Powell's has also made small concessions in prescription drug costs.

But employees say the offering doesn't match increased costs of living and still jacks up healthcare premiums. Employees charge that the new contract caters to younger workers who don't have dependents or large medical expenses.

"Since the company is profitable every year, that makes us feel like they don't want us here," says Steve O'Donnell, a Burnside history sections worker and purchaser of eight years. "It's a Wal-mart attitude toward employees," he adds, "like they want college kids instead of us."