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Powell's Books Inc. reveals true agenda...union-busting!

After months of delay tactics and retaliation against union activists, Powell's Books Inc. has revealed its true goal...to embrace the George W. Bush era and break the union of Powell's workers.
In a company-wide email today, co-CEO Sylvie Horne, under the guise of "answering employee questions," detailed how employees could quit the union. In point 5 Horne states that employees can withhold union dues now that the contract has expired (thanks to management's spending months pushing non-starter proposals that would make it impossible for most employees to both purchase health insurance for themeselves and their loved ones and to buy food and pay the rent).

The citizens of Portland deserve to know the true agenda of Powell's Books Inc., which is becoming just another greedy corporation, trying to cut health-care benefits to employees who make as little as $8.15 an hour while refusing to reveal sales figures. (Hoover's Online business website puts Powell's 2001 sales at $44,000,000, with sales growth of 25.7%, and that was two years ago...no wonder they're sitting on those numbers. Source:  http://www-2.hoovers.com/powell's-books/--ID__41378--/free-co-factsheet.xhtml )

Please write to  michael.powell@powells.com ,  ann.smith@powells.com , and  sylvie.horne@powells.com , and let them know what you think of their bringing Bush's war on workers to the Rose City. The "disclaimer" in the last paragraph of the following letter is rather disingenous, since the purpose of the letter is clearly to encourage employees to break rank with their co-workers and help management destroy the union...after which management can implement any "agreement" that they like.

Here is the email sent to Powell's employees today:

Subject: Employee Questions Regarding Union Activities and Dues

From: Sylvie Horne  Sylvie.Horne@powells.com

Date: Mon, November 24, 2003

To:  employee@powells.com

Hello, Employees have been asking us questions about recent union activities, including the ULP strike, and union dues. In response, we have prepared a brief summary of the answers to those questions.

1. Do I have to participate in a strike or other union activities? Every employee has the legal right to participate in union activities as well as the right not to do so. The decision is an individual one, and nobody can interfere with that decision or make it for you. It is your decision to engage in union activities or come to work. Even if you voted in favor of a strike or other union activities at a union meeting, you are not bound by that vote and can later decide not to participate in the strike or union activity and come to work.

2. Can I cross a picket line and continue to work if there is a strike? Certainly. We will continue to operate and you can come to work during any strike.

3. May I be fined by Local 5 if I cross the picket line to work for the company? According to Local 5's Bylaws (dated August 2000), members are required "to honor all sanctioned, legal, and approved picket lines." A member who violates this rule can be subject to charges, a trial, and punishment. The Bylaws, however, don't say what the punishment could be.

4. If I decide to come to work, can I avoid being fined? Yes. If you effectively resign your membership from the union before crossing the picket line, you can't legally be fined. The union can't punish anybody who crosses a picket line to work if they are no longer members of the union and, therefore, not bound by the union's constitution and bylaws when they cross the picket line. Another option to avoid any union discipline for working during a strike is by changing your regular union membership status to that of a "financial core" member. In essence, a financial core member agrees to pay the union the required monthly dues and fees charged regular members, but that person is not considered a formal union member for any other purpose. Financial core members are only required to pay dues and fees based on the amount the union spends on collective bargaining and representation activities. In order to resign from the union or elect financial core status, you need to deliver in person or by certified or registered mail a letter stating your resignation or change in status. You should keep a copy of the letter.

5. Do I have to keep paying dues at this time? No. Following the expiration of the labor agreement, employees cannot be required as a condition of employment to become and remain members of the union. This means that an employee who resigns membership during this time would not be required to pay union dues. In order to resign from the union, you need to deliver in person or by certified or registered mail a letter stating your resignation. You should keep a copy of the letter.

6. If I decide to stop paying dues, and the company and the union reach an agreement, will I owe any back dues for the period of time between contracts? Employees can resign from union membership after the expiration of the contract. An employee's resignation during this time is not affected by a future contract. In fact, whether the terms of any future contract is retroactive is the subject of negotiations - it is not automatic.

7. Can the union and coworkers harass me for crossing a picket line? Unfortunately, picketers can be expected to engage in name-calling and shouting at any employee who works during a strike. However, pickets are not allowed to engage in violence or threats of violence against any employee who works during a strike. The company will take immediate steps against any employee who engages in illegal misconduct while they are picketing.

8. If I have questions or need additional information, who should I contact? If you need additional information or have other questions, you can contact the Portland office of the National Labor Relations Board at 503-326-3085 and ask for the information officer. You also can contact me or Ann Smith.

I want to make it clear that we are responding to employees' questions and requests for information. Powell's fully respects your rights under federal labor law, is not encouraging you to make any particular decision on these issues, and will not interfere with your choices on these issues. We urge you to get all the information you need to make the best decision for yourself.

Thank you, Sylvie Horne
More...Powell's brags about website success and new warehouse... 24.Nov.2003 21:00

Joe Hill Jr.

Yeah...they're really hurting, aren't they? Gotta pass on that big medical copay to the workers, and pump those profits UP UP UP!!!

From the Powell's website:


Powells.com Expands, Purchases Additional Warehouse

NOVEMBER 12, 2002, PORTLAND, OR Powell's Books today announced the purchase of a 60,000 square foot warehouse two miles from its flagship downtown store. The facility will accommodate an increasing online inventory and expanded order fulfillment and shipping functions for the company's successful web site, Powells.com.

"We consider ourselves extremely lucky to find a suitable warehouse within city limits and near some of our other locations," said Miriam Sontz, Powell's CEO of Development. "With all that the new facility offers extra space for books and upgraded systems we're positioned to thrill more and more readers in the United States and around the world."

The Oregon-based bookseller's national reputation continues to grow at a time when many West Coast Internet retailers have closed shop or scaled back. Powells.com reported 22% growth in October 2002 over the previous year; and October sales represented the site's most geographically diverse customer base on record only 14% reside in the company's backyard, the Pacific Northwest.

The new warehouse, the company's second in Portland, resides on a three-acre lot and is nearly six times the size of the building in which Powells.com currently operates. Structural renovations have begun, and the first operations are scheduled to move there in late spring of 2003.

"The new warehouse space not only means more used books and better selection for our customers, but also improved efficiencies to get those books into our customers' hands as quickly as possible," said Michael Powell, the company's founder and president.

Strategic partnerships with distributors and content providers, along with a steady stream of national publicity, have catapulted the independent bookseller to the forefront of the industry. More than 70,000 surfers visit Powells.com every day to browse among more than a million used books, including many rare and out-of-print editions, as well as a wide selection of new, frontlist titles.

Show em how you feel 25.Nov.2003 01:37


Come to our ULP Strike Picket line, this friday--Buy Nothing Day, in front of the Burnside store. We'll be there all day! Is there a better way to celebrate buy nothing day than with a picket? I don't think so!

I tried to email sylvia 26.Nov.2003 19:33

aunt sam

I tried to email sylvia butthead horne but I got a nondeliverable address return. Is this common?

It's Sylvie, not Sylvia 26.Nov.2003 20:22

powell's worker

You probably got the name wrong, a.s., when you emailed.

The latest news is that Powell's management refused to even show up for negotiations today. All day Friday there will be an Unfair Labor Practices walkout by Powell's workers, and picket lines at all of the stores. Please do not shop at Powell's on Friday the 28th. Anyone who wants to come out and peacefully support us is welcome. Thanks.

not a dime will be spent 26.Nov.2003 23:40

Seattle Wobbly

I will be making all of my purchases for books at abe.com until Mr. Man Powell gets his shit together. ABE is a website where independent booksellers can sell their stuff on line. I found a great copy of a Carlo Tresca biography, in mint condition for 15 bucks. It would be really horrible for Mr. Powell if an e-leaflet went around the globe boycotting on-line sales.

This Seattle wob stands in solidarity with the Powells workers and local 5. x337969

what union busting firm did they hire? 26.Nov.2003 23:44

a concerned citizen

That manager did not author that memo. That is text book "labor consultant" speak.

dissenting view 05.Dec.2003 19:00

Mr. biBliopHile

I certainly don't expect to ever see this comment posted on your site, since I can already see how one-sided the posted views on this issue have been so far. Still, I feel I must speak out against this tide of ill-informed and unjust opinions against the management of Powell's Books and against Michael Powell in particular, especially on a website that is often on the side of righteousness and justice. In this case, you are simply dead wrong. I think that you would be hard-pressed to find a more civic-minded, dyed-in-the-wool liberal intellectual out there in the city of Portland than Mr. Michael Powell. Really, having had brief political discussions with him in the past, I was amazed that anyone at the head of a large corporation could harbor such unabashedly liberal views across the board. I would say that he shares many of the same views as the writers of these savage diatribes against him, but the truth of the matter is that he is separated from them by at least one very important distinction: his views are well-informed, reasoned, and thoughtful. The views expressed thus far on this page are nothing but pure offal, obviously uninformed and inflammatory in their rhetoric. As for Sylvie--I believe she was nicknamed "Butthead" by one of these scribbling troglodytes--Horne, that character assassination and name-calling of someone you have never met is both juvenile, irresponsible, and overall reprehensible. See? Sort of like when I call you a scribbling troglodyte. I am comforted only by the fact that postings like that serve to mainly to show the writer's lack of any real substantive arguments. Kudos, for in the long run you may actually do as much harm your own cause through your infantile and painfully obvious feeblemindedness than I ever could through thoughtful and reasoned argument. Your posting amounts to nothing more than a pathetic e-flame, and it deserves no further mention. As for likening Mr. Powell to George W. Bush, that is so outrageous that it is almost funny. Almost. The truth is that Mr. Powell has always been a leader in the area of free speech and workers' rights for as long as he has owned this business. I have met and spoken with him many times, and really, this demonizing of Michael Powell is just atrocious. Oh, and one glaring little detail I should point out about that article someone pasted on this website indignantly denouncing the company's recent purchase of a new warehouse: that's not exactly news from fresh off the presses, is it? In fact, look closely. Its not from this November, but rather from November a year ago. Nice try. That sort of slick media manipulation and distortion of facts to bolster one's viewpoint is actually a hallmark of neo-conservatives like Karl Rove. So Karl, or whoever you are, please go attend to your evil president and stay out of these serious local issues, of which you obviously know so little. I have heard again and again that Michael Powell is a union buster. Do any of you realize that the original vote to unionize passed by a mere six votes? Six votes! Out of about 400 votes cast. That means that nearly 200 of the employees, over 48% of them, didn't want anything to do with the ILWU, one of the most dubious and inappropriate of bedfellows I could possibly imagine for a group of mostly well-educated intellectuals such as Powell's employees tend to be. This very large minority has in fact been dragged down a four-year road of posturing hostility and irrationality by the very slimmest of majorities. You think four years of Bush has been bad? Likewise, imagine yourself one of these 200 rather content, hard-working booksellers, enduring four years in close association with a bunch of illiterate, racist, sexist, roughneck dockworkers. And make no mistake: the ILWU has a track record as one of the worst unions out there when it comes to discrimination, nepotism, and cronyism. Just ask that senior clerk on the docks whose job pays him $125,000 a year. On second thought, maybe you should ask the unconnected female or minority worker who didn't get that cushy job, for that is what the ILWU stands for. That, as well as unabashed physical intimidation. I still shake my head in wonder that these otherwise bright employees chose so poorly when looking for union representation. It beggars belief. And I will bet you that that local 5 doesn't like to mention that as little as a year ago, they regularly couldn't even get enough people to attend their meetings in order for them to reach a quorum on issues. That is pathetic, and is also symptomatic of a union that has done a very poor job of representing its constituency. I have seen up close how this union has time and again fumbled important employment issues , later sweeping their mistakes under the carpet and then pointing the finger of blame at management. And take a moment to look closely at those picketers you see screaming obscenities at the small children and the elderly trying to get in the store to buy a book. Hey, you're damn right those don't look like the faces of educated, erudite booksellers. Those are the beefy, vapid, angry faces of uneducated neanderthals rounded up off the docks with the sole purpose of intimidating the shoppers and book-lovers who have so much more of a right to congregate in a place of learning than they do. In fact, most of those ranting bullies probably can't even spell "book," and I am quite certain they have never come closer to reading a book on their own than our own word-weary commander-in-chief ever has. Now here are some painful truths, truths that few of the vocal minority of malcontent employees at Powell's are willing to face up to. Powell's sells books, not microchips. The average price per unit sold at Powell's is not in the hundreds of dollars, but rather somewhere at or below $15: this is a fact. I am sorry these people who are unhappy working at Powell's did not choose lucrative careers, since many of them are indeed well-educated people. It should be pointed out that the median pay rate at Powell's is well over $11.25 per hour. Please, someone, find me any other retail business anywhere in the United States where this is the case. Having worked at Powell's once myself, and having also worked as a bookseller for other companies, I can attest to the fact that Powell's is far and away the best deal I have ever come across in retail, let alone bookselling. Again, please look at the product they are selling here. Not $120 Nike shoes, not $250 Columbia outerwear, not $600 Dell computers, but rather that ubiquitous $15 book. Oh, and they don't produce that book themselves using child labor, either; rather, they pay anywhere from 25-50% up front just to acquire that book in the first place, and that is before you start figuring in all the costs of getting the book to the shelf and running the business itself, cost that include floorspace, utilities, and of course wages. And as for wages: last I heard--and this is from a few years ago, before the economy hit the toilet and Americans started hanging onto their jobs with justifiably white-knuckled fear--Powell's wages accounted for more than 23% of their overall sales. Not profits, mind you, but sales. By comparison, when I worked for Barnes and Noble, the average rate of wages to sales for each individual store hovered somewhere between 6-7%. No, I am not kidding, and that is not mistype either. Now, entities like Barnes and Nobles certainly deserve this sort of lambasting by those concerned with workers' rights, not to mention the corporate-ization of America and the often unfair squeezing of the smaller independent businessman. But Michael Powell? As I wrote earlier, these accusations are simply outrageous. They make for great soundbytes and picket chants, but they actually reflect a shamefully inaccurate knowledge and a skewed perspective on the real economic forces at play within Powell's Books, as well as within the bookselling industry and the retail industry in America as a whole. A little more on retail here. The American retail industry is a high turnover industry. Unfortunately, that is an unavoidable fact of life at present. Again, the historical rate of turnover at Powell's used to be somewhere around 20-30% per year. At Barnes and Noble, where I also once worked, that same turnover rate for employees was typically closer to 125-150% wherever you looked. That means, and this should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever shopped at a national chain like B&N, workers there really fit the mold of the typical retail "migrant" worker. Retail jobs in those corporate chains are what are commonly referred to as "McJobs," jobs that only young men and women desperate for some temporary income would seek out, and only until they can find something better. The truth is that Powell's has always gone against the grain in this area, offering better wages, providing much better benefits, and working to create a positive workplace. Not to say that management is not guilty of serious errors in judgment from time to time. But while mega-corporations encourage high turnover rates in order to keep from having to pay out annual increases to veteran workers and thus keep a "healthy" influx of minimum wage starters, Powell's has always striven to provide a different kind of environment, one that as a whole encouraged employee retention, at least when those employees showed merit and promise. Powell's also historically promotes almost entirely from within, another area in which they differ greatly from the big guys. I find it hard to believe that people do not see these clear-as-day distinctions between the kind of business Michael Powell runs and that which his super-sized competitors run. Now, I certainly do understand why some employees are upset at management's insistence on a health care premium increase, but Powell's uses an employer-sponsored health insurance system. That means that Powell's the company shoulders most of the cost. That also means that as health costs have continued to spiral upwards (no one disputes that, I hope) they have had to pay more and more money to keep up with rising costs. Of course they now have to turn to their employees and necessarily ask them to share in the increase in their premiums. Is this money going to line Michael Powell's pockets? No! It is going to pay for ever-increasing health costs. And if you don't understand that this entire country is in the midst of a health care crisis, then I would say you have probably been asleep for twenty years or so and your surname must be Van Winkle. So yes, the health care increase is a hard pill to swallow. I won't say it isn't. But speaking myself as one of the millions of Americans currently without any medical coverage whatsoever, I have to say that it could be worse for these employees. It could be much much worse. In fact, it will be worse, if something isn't done soon in this country. And don't blame Michael Powell for this; blame your lobbyist-influenced government for doing nothing about healthcare coverage in this country. Blame the lobbyists themselves, blame the HMOs, blame pharmaceutical companies, blame groups like the AARP for selling out their constituency. But for God's sake, don't blame the messenger telling you that health care costs are spiralling out of control. Don't blame Michael Powell for rising health care costs and a lousy economy over the past two plus years. And don't blame him for the unrealistic leftist employees and the violent, brutish dockworkers who have together hijacked his company and forced him into the position of being the bad guy simply for telling them the unpleasant truth about our nation's economy.

crossed line 12/20 22.Dec.2003 11:59

12/20 line crosser

Maybe it was a demonstration, not a picket line, becuase it was only on the 10th and Burnside entrance and not the 11th and Couch. Anyway, I crossed and bought holiday gifts. I did time in retail. The above post is dead-on accurate. You've got it easy compared to your retail peers. Blaming the organization responding to health care increases instead of the underlying reasons is foolish and self-defeating. If your Powell's job goes away (and my Powell's afternoons for times of solitude go away), do you think anything will rise in its place? See you at B&N. Good luck getting benefits at any of the smaller indie bookstores; as if there are enough indies in Portland to absorb 400 of you. George W. Bush is laughing at you . . .

I must agree 03.Jan.2004 18:03


I am sure glad to see the last two posts have been allowed to remain .

I wish everyone knew how well they have it at Powell's, I have spent much time in this institution and would hate to see anything happen to it, or those of you who can not see how good you have it .

I have heard some of propaganda that some people are spewing, and just from common sence I know that alot is not true . And I fear that alot of you are being led down a long road of heartache and dissillusionment. I do hope that as individuals , you will look past yourselves to the rest of the people that are in a similar industry position to yours , that should tell you what is fair . too be honest I do not know of any industry that accrues sick pay and holiday pay at the overwhelming rate that powell's does nor do I know of any other retail establishments that offers up to $400.00 a month for child care . Then there is the education benefit , that not too many other corporations have , so that you may better yourselves and thus increase your own pay accordingly.

Please remember just because somebdy is in front , it does not always mean they are the one to follow.

Unions are a good and possitive entity in this world but only when they are truly looking out for the greater good of their membership. We should look closely at what , as a union you have to offer Powell's

Thank you for your consideration

Sad 16.Feb.2004 12:45

EQ Steinfelt

This is really sad these last two or three comments. The real question should be why other workers don't have it "as good as" those at Powell's, and then what we can do to make it better. That is assuming the authors of these comments support workers as much as they claim to.

As to commentary regarding Michael Powell's liberal attitudes; etc. where are they on display with these contract negotiations? Who cares what a person says in conversation if his actions show otherwise? By this logic we should simply accept that Clean Sky initiatives and Healthy Forest plans do just as their title states.

If Powell is so liberal, why is he flaunting the law in contract negotiations, not bargaining in good faith?

Regarding the numbers of those who voted for the union--let's assume that number quoted is correct, 6 more than half--what does that matter now? The actions I have seen have easily pulled together more than that number.

Living in the past and not critically analyzing what a person says versus what a person does may be a nice way to exist, but it has no bearing on reality.