Have union, will organize - anyone

by Michael Rose
Portland Business Journal, March 22,1999

The longshoreman's union has launched an aggressive campaign to win new members in Portland, and it's looking beyond the docks for prospects.

Retail clerks at Powell's City of Books got the campaign rolling when they asked the International longshore & Warehouse Union to help them organize the mammoth bookstore's 330 nonmanagement workers. The ILWU created Local 5 as a new union chapter to represent Powell's employees if the organizing effort succeeds. Local 5 is also serving as the union's beachhead to bring other professions into ILWU.

"We envision Local 5, and many Powell's employees do as well, as a new organizing force in the Portland area for all types of people," said Michael Cannarella, an ILWU organizer based in Portland. The ILWU is ready to talk if any group of workers in Portland is interested in organizing, he said.

The ILWU, best known for its dominance on the West Coast's waterfront, has succeeded in organizing a wide range of industries in other West Coast cities and Hawaii. Now the union hopes to replicate that pattern in Portland.

Besides the ongoing union campaign at Powell's, Local 5 has three other organizing efforts in the works, including:

An attempt to unionize the city's entire messenger services industry, a bargaining unit that would include several hundred bike and car messengers.

A small group of employees with American Waterways Inc., the owner of the Portland Spirit and two other dinner cruise ships, has come aboard with Local 5 and organizing is under way.

Later this month, 15 employees at the Boise Cascade warehouse in the Port of Portland's Rivergate Industrial District are scheduled to vote on union representation with the ILWU.

The ILWU originated from a 1930s longshoreman's strike. Today it doesn't care if potential members handle ship's cargo, weave bikes through traffic to deliver messages or pamper guests at swank hotels.

In Hawaii, the longshoreman's union is 21,000 members strong. But only 300 of those members have anything to do with loading ships. The remainder work in businesses, ranging from hotels to hospitals.

Perhaps the most significant of the union campaigns is occurring at Boise Cascade's warehouse. For the first time, the union could extend its power from the docks into the port's thriving industrial park.

"We're looking for anything that's connected to the port where we have leverage," said the ILWU's Cannarella.

Last month, the ILWU flexed its muscle by shutting down the port's container terminal for two days. The dispute was triggered when ILWU's four berth agents--who handle paperwork--picketed after working for months without a contract. Longshoremen honored the pickets, stranding ships at dockside.

The ILWU also will tackle professions where union organizing is rare, such as the messenger services industry.

Starting in San Francisco a year ago, ILWU's supporters have touted the benefits of collective bargaining to bicyclists--and motorists--who carry urgent packages. There's also some talk of organizing messengers in Seattle.

Union backers in Portland say the movement has supporters at most of the city's larger messenger services. In a show of worker solidarity, the messengers say they will conduct a one-hour work stoppage during a rally planned for April 16.

Most of the union support is among the bikers, who typically earn about $1,000 a month for peddling 30 to 50 miles a day. Union supporters said they want a collective bargaining agreement to sweeten their pay and benefits.

High job turnover among the youthful messengers, most of whom have never belonged to a union and remain leery of organized labor, are formidable obstacles for the ILWU.

"About the time they signed them up and got them to start paying union dues, they would be gone," said Steve Chastween, an owner of Transerve Systems Inc., a Portland messenger service.

At American Waterways Inc.'s dinner cruise operations, employees who started the campaign are primarily responsible for operating the Portland Spirit, Willamette Star and Crystal Dolphin.

An employee at the dinner cruise company said pay is the main issue driving the campaign. The highest-paid boat captains make a little more than $13 an hour and entry-level deckhands start at $6.50 an hour, the employee said.

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