I remember the evening we met because it was my birthday, a Sunday evening, early October. We also met at an unusual time, 11 p.m, upstairs at the Longshoremen’s hall, Local 8. My office was downstairs. I met a dozen or fifteen employees, around the large wooden table. I brought the usual organizing flyers that I use for explaining the legal process and an introduction to the ILWU, the West coast longshoremen’s union.
I didn’t know then, but many of the people at this meeting would be the leaders for the union effort. As an organizer for about fifteen years, this first meeting was like many others I had. I told the group that night that, given the size of the Powells workforce and several store locations, they would need a solid thirty people on the organizing committee. That was almost three times more than at the meeting that evening. I briefly explained the legal process for petitioning the Labor Board to get a vote and successfully win union rights and a union contract. I warned the group that night that selecting the appropriate union to support their effort was important and that signing an authorization card, requesting an election should finalize that selection and exclude other unions from intervening.
I told the group they would be creating their own local within the ILWU, Local 5 or Local 9 were the choices. I had discussed this option with my supervisor before the meeting.
I learned that night that this group of Powells employees had met with several other unions before their meeting with me. For those present the ILWU was attractive because of the progressive politics the union was known to support. I believe the idea of having their own local, they chose Local 5 that evening, was also attractive.
I didn’t know then, but I would be working with this group over the next two years. In that time, I hired additional staff, sought and received legal support, wrote and edited numerous newsletters. I organized rallies and strikes, taught organizing training sessions, spoke to the press, headed up a negotiations committee and whatever else was needed.
With the help of this initial group we expanded the organizing committee, we mapped the workplaces, the different stores, and worked to identify those that would be eligible to vote for a union. There were several locations besides the main downtown store and efforts were made to reach out to the employees at the other Powells stores as they were under-represented at this initial meeting.