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3/17/00 St. Patrick’s Day

A good amount of preparation went into this picket line, on St. Patrick’s day, the ULP strike.  The strike was at the Internet office across from the Burnside store, 10th street at Couch.  This was the shipping department for Powells.  Each day packages were shipped from this location.  

The union had supporters in the Internet store, some book shipments included a union fact sheet telling the story of the organizing drive at Powells.  Before the strike day a letter was sent to the appropriate Teamsters local council telling them that a picket line would be set on March 17th at Powell’s internet store.  The letter requested that the United Parcel employees honor the picket line, not cross it, to pick up packages that day.

The ILWU had received a response to this request to honor the picket line.  The documents were at the site that afternoon.  I had spent the last few days contacting both the longshore local, Local 8 members and Powells employees to assure a good turnout for the picket line.  That day we gathered at the Internet store in the early afternoon.  Our hope was to block all of the outgoing mail.  It was a Friday, typically a busy mail day for the store.

The signs were prescribed by the Labor attorneys, we were documenting an Unfair Labor Practice.  This was to protect any Powells employees.  It was their legal right to strike for a ULP without fear of termination.  This distinction, economic vs ULP strike was important.   An economic strike, one over wages or benefits allows the employer to legally fire workers who participated.  It was not so with a ULP strike.  Therefore, the signs we displayed and what they said were important.

To my relief the turnout was good.  Both Powells employees and Local 8 longshoremen came to the picket line.  For the longshoremen this was a picnic, they were veterans of many pickets and job actions.  The strike and picket line was not as familiar or comfortable for the bookstore employees.  People marched with the signs in a circle around the main doors of the internet office.  There were chants and noise, the atmosphere was festive.

Later in the afternoon between three and four p.m. the United Parcel truck pulled up across the street from the Internet store.  This was the moment, the climax of the job action.  All eyes were on the UPS driver who approached the internet store.  He made it clear he intended to collect the parcels and be on his way.  

Managers inside the Internet store began pushing the bins with the parcels toward the door, attempting to roll the bins out to the UPS driver.  The bins were met at the double door by members of the picket line.  For a couple of minutes with both sides pushing the bins which neither moved in or out the doors.  The bins were metal frames with a canvas lining.  The bins collapsed a bit during the tug of war.  But they didn’t move out the doors.  Finally, the managers pushing the bins, after looking at one another gave up and the bins slid back into the store, the doors closed.

Next, the longshoremen formed a line, shoulder to shoulder in front of the door blocking the driver.  One of the longshoremen opened the folder with the exchange of letters between the union and the Teamsters local.  The letter documented the commitment from the Teamster to honor the picket line that day.  The UPS driver was uninterested in the documents and moved toward the door for the package bins.

A longshoreman stepped toward the driver.  Both men were good sized.  They stood inches from one another face to face, still and wordless for a long moment.  The longshoreman was stone faced, his fists clenched in front of his chest, and poised to fight.  Both men stood frozen, eye to eye.  Then the UPS driver stepped back, looked down at the ground, pivoted on one leg and walked back to the truck and drove away.  The picket line cheered.

Moments later the U.S. mail truck pulled up to the store.  The mailman walked slowly toward the Internet store.  When he got near the doors he raised both hands, signaling a truce and then he turned and walked back to his truck and drove away.  No shipments were going out that day!

The managers in the store did not give up easily.  They wanted to take a Powells delivery truck and deliver the packages to the post office and a UPS store.  Again there was a tug-a-war at the door with the bins and again the bins were forced back into the store.

The pickets line continued to move around the doors of the store.  It was a cool March day and there were a few drops of rain that late afternoon.  While the picket took victory laps round and round the doors of the store one longshoreman decided that the Powells van would not be moving that afternoon or evening.  

While I circled with the crowd I heard someone say in a hushed tone, a tire was flattened.  I looked down the street and saw a longshoreman, walking up the street,  a big smile on his face, holding a long switchblade.  No one took responsibility for the flat tire and it was discussed at length over the next few days.

Here are some fiction stories inspired by this event:

Patty at Powells

Tony at Powells:

The Thud at the Door:

Frank at Powells: