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4/22/99 The Vote Count

Long anticipated, the union election day arrived.  Because employees work at six different locations it was agreed there would be six voting locations and times throughout the day.  Further, it was agreed that an employee could vote at any voting site.  If an employee voted at a site that was not their usual workplace, their ballot however would be temporarily challenged in order to determine later they hadn’t voted more than once.  To have a Labor Board agent at each site, several Board agents came to Portland from the Los Angeles Labor Board office.

The union wished to challenge some voters, five in total, who were believed to be management employees, and therefore ineligible.  In order to challenge these five voters, it meant that a union observer was needed at each voting site.  This required some training, and coordination.  If one of the five we wished to challenge as a manager presented themselves to vote, our observer could challenge that voter.  Challenged voters could vote, however once challenged their ballot would be sequestered, and put in a separate envelope with their name on the outside.  Later, if the challenged ballots could make a difference in the outcome of the election, a determination of whether they were a manager or correctly in the bargaining unit would be made via a hearing.

I was nervous all day.  The election was the climax of a year and a half work, with finally an up or down vote.  I liked that my job offered the finality of a vote.  My previous jobs had a never ending continuity.  For union organizing the goal was to get a vote, yes or no and win!  No was a termination point, yes moved on to a union contract.  Election day was stressful so although I was busy on election day,  the tension built throughout the day.

My experience in these workplace elections was that typically seventy to eighty percent of the eligible voters actually voted.  I needed a simple majority of those that voted to vote yes.  Thus, turnout was a big factor in assessing the likely outcome and identifying the support needed to win.   Powells was one of the biggest private sector union elections in the Portland region (a subregion of the Labor Board in Seattle) in years. It was a high profile union drive.  

The balloting began at seven a.m. at the Portland airport store and ended in the Downtown store in the late afternoon with voting in the outlying stores during the day.  When voting ended ballot boxes were gathered from the different voting sites.  The ballots were counted that day in the administrative offices near the downtown store.

For most of the day I was in my office and on the phone; checking to be sure those designated as observers were able to get to their voting locations, checking to be sure supporters voted.  The day for me was, assuring voter turnout, answering questions, and getting back some reports of voter turnout from the observers when their shift was over.  I felt, in my body, the tension building during the day.  Employees not scheduled to work that day were called to be sure they got to a voting site.

 “X hasn’t voted and they don’t work today, do they need a ride?”  “Can’t we get them to a voting place?” 

It was a long day.  Percolating periodically in my mind, the thought, “is my job on the line”?   A lot of money was spent on this organizing drive.  It was high profile within the ILWU both locally and at the national union.  What if we lost?

One of the people working with me as a volunteer was recruited to take an employee to the Portland airport for the early morning vote.  The employee was a strong supporter and she was having day surgery that day at Salem Hospital and she didn’t want to miss a chance to vote.  The volunteer took her to the airport early that morning, he then took her to her appointment at Salem Hospital for surgery.

The reports from the observers that day indicated a huge turnout.  With a set number of Yes votes this was no good news. Just days before the vote Michael Powell sent a letter to all employees urging a no vote and appealing for employees to work together, WITHOUT a union.

People began assembling in the conference room adjacent to Michael Powell’s office while the last voting place at the Burnside store ended.  Michael Powell was not in his office. His managers were present along with the attorneys hired to represent him.  

Due to the arrangement that allowed employees to vote at any site there was a fairly long period checking the challenged ballots of employees who voted at sites other than their usual workplace.  No employee attempted to vote more than once and so those challenged ballots were slowly integrated with the other votes. The five ballots the union challenged as managers were set aside.

The counting began by voting location.  An employee from management and the union stood on each side of the Labor Board agent as he opened each ballot.  He displayed the ballot to the observers and those present and then placed it in the Yes or No pile.  The counting slowly proceeded, “Yes, Yes, No, No, No, Yes, Yes”.  The observers from both sides tallied votes.  When a pile reached fifty votes it was bound with a rubber band and set aside.  I was counting as were others on a sheet of paper, in different columns a mark for yes or no.  The technical store, where the union support was weakest cast a large number of no votes, the Burnside store was the strongest group of yes votes.

As the counting proceeded, for me the tension and drama increased.  My hands were sweaty.  Concentrating on the tally became more difficult.  It was a close vote with a huge turnout.  My calculations assumed an eighty percent turnout at most.  That appeared to be a low estimate.  My stomach tightened as I realized we could lose.  Clearly all employees were motivated to vote, therefore my margin for winning was more narrow given the support, the number of yes votes I had calculated. What if we lose?  All the work to get to this point lost!  These were the thoughts and fears moving through me as the voting dragged on.  My eyes were on the Labor Board agent, showing the ballots, then on my tally sheet.  The people in the rest of the room faded, I struggled to concentrate on the vote count.  What could we have done better?  What?  What? The last batch of ballots counted were from the Burnside store.   

With the final ballots counted it was 161 YES to 155 NO with five challenged ballots.  The challenged ballots could not change the outcome of the election!  I saw the relief on the face of the Labor Board agent who surely didn’t want a protracted lengthy litigated outcome, nor of course did I.  I took a deep breath.  No hearings would be required to determine the appropriateness of the challenged ballots.  I knew with some certainty that the five ballots the union had challenged were no votes.  What would a hearing have determined?  We would never know.

The Labor board agent announced the outcome.  The union had prevailed.  The celebration began, union people hugged each other, and smiled all around.  I can remember and still feel the fear and stress slowly rolling off of me starting with my neck and shoulders while hugging supporters after the vote count.  It was not a resounding victory, but it was a win.