A bookstore, even a large one, isn’t the kind of workplace one associates with union thievery. But there are exceptions to every rule. Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it would investigate a former secretary-treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5, Britta Duncan, for thefts totaling up to $50,000 from the union, which represents employees at Powell’s Books, a retail chain in the Portland, Oregon area. Current Secretary-Treasurer Ryan Takas acknowledged the existence of the DOL probe on September 22.
Powell’s Books is a Portland-area institution. Its flagship outlet, Powell’s City of Books, is one of the largest, if not the largest, independent seller of new and used books in the world, occupying nearly 70,000 square feet of retail floor space. It’s also a union shop. Back in 1998, by a narrow vote, store employees formed a union which eventually affiliated with the ILWU. Like any number of other ILWU locals, it’s been beset by embezzlement. When Takas assumed the role of secretary-treasurer last spring, he noticed inconsistencies in bookkeeping. The local launched an internal investigation and alleged Duncan ripped off as much as $50,000. Takas contacted the DOL, which has initiated its own probe. Powell’s, in the meantime, has problems of its own. This September, as a cost-cutting measure, the company announced it would let go of eight managers in addition to the 31 employees it laid off earlier this year.