Throughout the Powells organizing campaign I often heard that we needed to get our story in the Willamette Week, the local weekly paper. This was understandable, the paper is positioned at a younger audience, highlighting local cultural events and a weekly summary of music events in Portland. Many thought this was where the union effort would get a fair representation.
I wasn’t as sure that the Powells “story” would be fairly told in the Willamette Week but I had heard this belief from so many employees I reserved my judgement. At the time the most reliable and most honest reporting was from a monthly paper, the Portland Alliance and from the community radio station, KBOO. At that time, neither KBOO or the Portland Alliance could be considered mainstream media in Portland.
As we worked toward a contract, a decision was made to work with a reporter, Nigel Jaquiss of the Willamette Week, to get Powell’s union story told to a broader audience. I spoke with Nigel and with permission from employees provided their contact information to Nigel so he could talk to them.
Why form a union at Powells? What did the employees hope to accomplish? What were the reasons the employees were seeking representation with the ILWU, a predominately dock union? The hope was that the union drive would gain a human face in the weekly. Hearing directly from employees, the expertise and education of the workforce along their low wages would be shown. The actual people, their lives, would become part of the union story.
After many interviews with bookstore employees, over a good period of time was disappointing to me and others. The Jaquiss story did not paint a favorable picture of the employees seeking a union. The idea that the weekly would give the workers at the bookstore a fair portrait didn’t come through in the story.
Shortly after the story was published one afternoon I received a call from Nigel Jaquiss the journalist. Disappointed in the story, I was not anxious to speak to him however he wanted to talk. I don’t remember the chat, however I do remember that Nigel was anxious to get my opinion of his story.
More than once I told him that it was not my practice to share my opinion with journalists about their stories. I told him I didn’t see the purpose that could serve. Nigel was insistent. He wanted my opinion of his story. He had more access to the people working to form the union than any other journalist during the organizing campaign.
Finally, I told him that I believed that he missed the story, that even with the extraordinary access granted him, he missed the story and that it was disappointing to me and others. At his point Nigel grew very defensive and angry with me. I told him he asked for my opinion and I honestly gave it to him.
I believe, after the phone call that afternoon and as a result of our interaction, subsequently, coverage of the union effort and contract campaign in Willamette Week became very negative.
Postnote: Rereading the article, twenty years distant I can see that I was too harsh in my assessment. I still see that the article is overly friendly to Michael Powell and failed to capture the reasons for the union movement or answer the question, why a union at Powells.
You can read the original article here: