Powell’s workers rock out to walk out

September 7, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore.--Workers at Powell's Books, the largest independent bookstore in the country, held a benefit show called "Rock Out to Walk Out" on August 27.

The show was put on to raise money for the strike fund for International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5, which represents Powell's workers in Portland and Seattle and is entering into contract negotiations with Powell's management in July 2011. The benefit concert was also a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the local.

While a union fundraiser may not at first glance appear to be a newsworthy event, this one was distinctive in several ways, especially considering the state of the labor movement and union organizing today.

It was a large, well-organized event, put on by the rank and file of the union, and consisted largely of a younger crowd. The event featured the creative endeavors of many of the local's own members, including readings from a special issue of "Working Class Stories" in The Ne'er-Do-Well literary magazine, and music by local bands such as DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid, Bop Out to Walk Out Jazz Quartet, Michael Ford, Nate Ashley, General Strike and Middle Ages.

What you can do

Support ILWU Local 5's strike fund by buying a copy of "The Little Red Album" at the ILWU Local 5's Web site.

Local 5 members wrote the majority of stories in the Ne'er-Do-Well, and almost all of the bands that played have members who are part of Local 5. Organizers of the event were hoping for a turnout of 300 people, and by halfway through the event, approximately 200 had come through to enjoy the music, grab some food and a beer, chat with friends and talk about politics.

A half dozen local unions also came out in support or helped to publicize the fundraiser, and all proceeds went straight into Local 5's strike fund.

BUT WHAT really distinguished this event was the vibrant display of working-class consciousness among a predominantly young crowd. A casual passerby probably wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between this young crowd organizing for a potential strike and the multitude that might have come out to a see a show at any other bar or club. But these show-goers weren't just out for the music--they were also out for the cause.

In the midst of a recession, next year's contract negotiations probably won't be pretty--despite the fact that businesses in Oregon continue to prosper. Local 5 members are aware of the challenges they'll face and don't want to accept any concessions.

As Josh Engel, a member of Local 5, put it, "While we have great benefits, there's a huge proportion of us who don't make a living wage. We all want to get on the same page, [so that we have the same benefits], and also advance the line." When asked about the prospect for such gain given the state of the economy, Josh said it would likely be "hard as hell."

This is precisely why Local 5 held "Rock Out to Walk Out." One goal was to raise money for the strike fund, but as organizer Ryan Takas explained, the local also hoped to educate the union's membership about the upcoming contract negotiation, as well as raise awareness among the general public in Portland.

As Takas put it, an important aspect of the event was to bring up the possibility of a strike and "provide a venue where we can talk about this, bring it to the greater public, before we're on the picket line, and people are just yelling at us to get a job." In a city that claims to support locally owned, non-corporate, independent businesses--and a city where many people pride themselves on intellectualism--Powell's is a local icon.

But as Local 5 member Kim Hooyboer put it, "It's a wonderful employer, but that doesn't mean we don't need a union."

Other members of the local echoed the importance that Takas placed on raising community awareness about the situation facing Powell's employees and building support in advance of their upcoming struggle.

The foresightedness of the local, combined with its youth and energy, brought hope to many attending the event about the future of the labor movement. Daniel Solazzo, with the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, called it "refreshing to see."

"The young people are who's going to take over the reins of the union movement," said Solazzo. "And building in preparation for a contract battle, building events like the 'Rock Out to Walk Out' is what can teach that younger generation how to effectively organize--and this isn't the type of organizing they teach you in school."

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