Flexing muscles at Flax: Anatomy of service sector organising

Flax store, San Francisco, 2010
Flax store, San Francisco, 2010

Maxine Holz and Lucius Cabins interview two workers at a small art supplies firm in San Francisco about a unionisation attempt in 1986.

Submitted by ludd on March 8, 2010

In early May 1986, PROCESSED WORLD interviewed Pauline Paranoia (P), and Stefan Ferreira Cluver (S), two of the main organizers of a unionization attempt at Flax Art Supplies on Market Street in San Francisco. Owned and run by Philip Max, the store employs sixty people, who are divided into different sections: thirty work the sales Boor, another ten in the warehouse, and the last twenty are managers, office staff, and outside sales people. Flax workers opted for Service Employees international Union Local 87, which until now has mainly represented the janitorial workforce in many large office buildings in San Francisco. The interview was conducted by Maxine Holz (M), with occasional help from Lucius Cabins (L).

M: How and why did you start organizing? A brief history, please? Set the stage...

S: [laughter] An opinionated chronology!.. Things slowly began developing in the summer of 1984. Flax had instituted a policy of company meetings where all the employees would be called together and we would supposedly be encouraged to give him our suggestions and opinions. A group of employees drew up a list of suggestions on how to improve things in the store. Flax just took the list of suggestions and said: "No we can't do this, yes, we might do that..." There was no real discussion. He just did what he wanted and, more importantly, promised to do some things he never did. We got a sense that this was not going to get us anywhere.

P: But it was significant that a group of employees presented him with something --anything!

M: So these meetings backfired. They brought in democratic rhetoric, but people took it seriously, and it became the framework for further organizing--just what they wanted to avoid?

S: Right, right... The real breaking Feint was the annual review process... Every four months new employees get a set raise --after that, there is a yearly review. They are called in one by one and given "an opportunity to present their opinion on the matter" and then they're told what their raise will be. At the time we speculated that reviews in Oct. 84 were used to get rid of some employees who Flax felt were being a drag on the store--ones who were a little bit cynical or at least not as gung-ho as Flax wanted them to be.

P: Not as drone-like! They weren't androids!

S: What management said was "You seem to have some attitude problems--we don't feel that you're happy here," this kind of thing. There was absolutely no established criteria.

P: They didn't say "You haven't been filling your shelves"--nothing you could quantify. So many people got told they had a bad attitude, it got funny.

S: At first, people came out of the reviews with these shocked expressions on their faces--they were very reluctant to talk about it. But, the fact that so many people were screwed over in the reviews, given measly or no raises, was a key element in getting people to talk. Part of our organizing effort was to break the ban on communication in the store. The situation got so wild that people actually started talking to each other, on an individual level, about how messed up this whole review thing was. The employees who approached Flax originally in the company meetings had a meeting of their own to see what they could do about the reviews.

P: That's when I first came into this scene. I've never experienced anything like it--first of all I'd never worked in a place where people had so much contact. I'd worked in big offices where you had your own desk in a row but you never talked as much. I was really impressed by the fact that everybody was being so open about the reviews because 1 thought "Oh that's such a personal subject" and most places you never talk about how much you make! The people who started the organizing kept it under wraps, since some people might have gone running to Flax. At first they only approached people they could definitely count on.

S: From one meeting to the next it went from 8 to about 12-16 people. We surprised ourselves with how many people were interested, so we said "What are we going to do?" We talked about looking into unions. I used to have conversations with a fellow employee about how we ought to get a union in this place. And we'd just laugh and say "No way." Given people's consciousness, you can't do that in a place like this. So, we just joked around about it. But people took that joke very seriously. Suddenly, at that meeting it was like "Why don't we give it a shot?"

The floor manager at first was really happy. There was so much socializing! People were going out to lunch together, they liked that people were getting friendly. What we were doing was establishing solidarity. We were very surprised positive reaction we got--after talking to people the first time we had that one-third needed to file for an election.

P: And that's why we went for it--it wasn't a case of the union coming in and forcing us to do anything.

M: Was there any point along the way where somebody said "Why don't we just organize ourselves instead of going to the union?"

S: In a sense we already had tried to organize ourselves. The committee we had before, the company meeting agenda, that was an attempt to organize ourselves.

P: Legal representation was important--later we saw just how important. The legal power of a union was really attractive to us.

S: And protection under the National Labor Relations Act in terms of organizing.

M: Do you have to contact a union to get protection for concerted activity under the NLRA?

S: Not necessarily, but if we were to call ourselves Flax Employees Organization...

P: We would still have to get recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, and that could take three years... It always seemed obvious to me it was better to go with a union because it's hard to get recognized independently.

S: We looked at a few different options: one guy talked to some folks at Teamsters, I have a friend who was working with UFCW (United Food & Commercial Workers), and one worker talked to her husband Richard, who was with Local 87 of the SEIU.

P: Local 87's way of selling themselves was their progressive history, their openness, the fact that we would write our contract. I especially liked that last one because it meant we would have control, ultimately, over the outcome of the whole thing. There was no way we would take pat clauses, We would write every word if it took all the time in the world.

M: Was there suspicion about unions among your coworkers?

S: Yes, because of the kind of people that work at Flax. Most of them have no union experience. They tend to by young, single, college-educated with a professional class background. They probably heard bad things about unions from their parents, or unions were outside of their experience.

People at Flax come out of more privileged sectors, often they have fine arts backgrounds and are more self-confident. They expect to go on to better jobs, to climb a ladder of some sort even if they don't know what that ladder is.

P: Several Flax employees are practicing artists. They have a sense of themselves as creative but they have to pay rent too.

S: People have this idea that "this job is not my life." Instead of trying to improve their work situation their attitude is, "If I don't like it, I'11 quit and be a waiter or anything, I'11 move on." And we were saying "Look, whether you like it or not, you're spending eight hours a day here, half your waking life, so why not make it the best work situation possible? You have to take a stand..." And there's the individualist trip you get here in the US. You as an individual can make it. Because of this people thought they could stand up and take a position against Flax, but at the same time they identified with Flax and the private enterprise lingo. This dichotomy has created difficulties, e.g. with Richard, who was used to more traditional "working-class" people. Working-class people feel disenfranchised, but they have less illusions that the boss looks out for them and they also have less of a sense of self-power. So in organizing you have to build a sense of solidarity, a sense that they can make a difference, that there is something worth fighting for.

Whereas at Flax, the problem is different. Employees fall for the argument that "Flax is paying us as much as possible." Their folks have been in management positions, so that's who they identify with. You have to convince people that they are workers! A key concept in our organizing was to get people to recognize themselves as workers and working life as a major part of their lives.

M: So let's get back to what happened after contacting Richard?

P: Feelings were running high. The first two weeks were scary, then when we saw we had support, we felt great.

S: We had two-thirds of the people sign authorization cards.

M: So you filed and management then knew what was going on?

S: Yeah, we thought they were on to us but it turns out they were totally caught by surprise. We thought we could win the world then. Our first obstacle was to define the bargaining unit. The traditional technique, as we learned from Richard, was that Flax would try to hold up the election with challenges to the makeup of the bargaining unit. He would want managers in there so he could control things... To avoid his challenges and keep momentum going we agreed to a wall-to-wall bargaining unit.

P: That meant everyone, including floor managers. It was the most democratic, but not necessarily the best choice, as we soon found out, though we felt we had to make it at the time.

S: It only excluded five people: Philip Flax, the personnel, operations, and sales managers, and the head accountant. That left all supervisors as well as outside sales people which was a major point of weakness. The election date was set at the end of November, at the same time the bargaining unit was decided, and the vote was scheduled for Dec. 28.

M: What were management tactics during that month between the time the election was set and the election?

P: They handed out flyers with our paychecks at the end of the day so you have no chance to talk about it. The flyers main message was "Here's what you lose when you go on strike, and here's how much you lose with dues." They really hit the economic issues by saying "you're going to be paying money to this organization you don't even know. It's just a bunch of janitors, the dirty scum, blah blah blah..."

S: Flax also started holding mass meetings during work, but the most intimidating thing was the small group meeting with Mr. Flax, the VP of Sales and a couple of floor managers--basically it was 3-4 managers and 5 employees.

P: And they'd say: "We'd appreciate hearing all your views, please speak freely." And you'd say something and they'd say "No that's not true at all, blah blah. Don't bring in a third party who doesn't know what you really need. We always thought we could resolve things here at Flax with our open door policy.'' He made a big deal of the "open door policy."

M: How did you respond to management's campaign?

P: We would hand out three page flyers explaining point by point in question/answer format, which I thought was really good, and we held meetings.

S: Yeah (laughing) we were good and they were bad.

M: Was there any attempt on your part to keep them confused as to who were the main organizers?

S: On the contrary, our strategy at that point was, the more outspoken you are in terms of your support for the union the more protection you have under the NLRB. Because if you keep your sentiments under cover and they find out, they can frame you and you have a harder time proving they're firing you for union activities.

M: Was this brought up to workers to encourage vocalizing?

S: Yes, in our small group session with management we were very combative. At this point we went from the peak of support and started losing ground for two reasons. Some people were floored by the management meetings--here they were before the authority figure. And, there were also a couple of people who were anti-union for ideological reasons who went along at first, but when given half the chance they gladly bowed out. There were people Flax could exert more direct pressure on, such as the outside sales people. We lost them because Flax froze some accounts due to the "volatile situation." That was a big blow to us all. And, he used the Kissinger theory of madman power management--the person in power becomes unpredictable. So Flax inflated the image he's cultivated all along of being this crazy, arbitrary unpredictable person.

P: Yeah, he would walk by something 7 days in a row, on the eighth day he would notice it and start ranting, chew the person out in public, make them cry. He played that up. At the time we thought it was stupid, but now we realize it was an intimidation tactic.

M: I bet it was selective too, like choosing people he knew would break down. I'11 bet he didn't do it to you two?

P: Yeah, that's true.

S: One more important thing happened before the election where our support slipped. We had an important meeting right before the election where a lot of office people showed up, and some managers. They had had a large company meeting which we had messed with a little bit. We had been vocal and defiant against things Flax said to show we weren't afraid. And I think he urged people to come to our meeting to do pretty much the same thing. People were voicing a lot of doubts and things they wanted answers to. Richard's view was that they didn't really want answers to those questions, what they needed was reassurance that we could hang together.

M: So instead of answering questions he'd just give rhetoric about solidarity, which made people angry and suspicious?

P: Exactly. It happened often at important times.

M: What kinds of questions?

S: About dues, etc. He would get around to answering the question, but only after a long philosophical explanation. He wanted to address where he thought they were coming from.

P: And all they wanted was to be told "It's not that much money, only this %" and it's worth it, etc.

S: One other thing that played a role was cultural prejudice or racism. Richard Leung is Chinese-American. He's from Hong Kong and speaks with an accent. I have a strong sense that several anti-union people also had cultural prejudices.

P: It's sad to say they reacted like this... This did play a role at several key points.

S: That pre-election meeting was important for us, we hoped to rip out of there with an 80% vote. But after this meeting, we went "Oh shit." The committed anti-union people in the store felt if the union came in they couldn't work there. They went all out to mess things up. They were Flax loyalists who thought they were getting a good deal at Flax, and their strategy was to make union meetings intolerable--very frustrating since we were trying to get people to give their free time coming to meetings after work.

M: So these people were turning meetings into a drag. What did you do to try to stop this?

P: We tried everything we could think of. We tried arguing point by point, which didn't work.

L: Did you try to kick them out of meetings?

P: No. 1 don't know if we should have. Some people wanted to. But if you're trying to hold a meeting for all employees, and you start kicking people out...

L: It's tricky, but it seems reasonable to me after a period of clear, deliberate obfuscation to say "We're not really interested in the problems you are raising, so if you have had your say, please split."

S: I think the key thing was the problem of facilitation which we didn't address. On this there was already a little tension between Richard and ourselves.

M: Your meetings had no formal structure?

P: Some had more than others. Sometimes we set agendas, and sometimes not.

S: Our problem was, we never managed to get Richard to respect the facilitator so it was hard to get others to do the same. Richard saw himself as a fount of information.

P: He'd think "now is the time for me to come in and inform everybody."

S: Another reason why Richard had so much power in the situation had to do with how the less involved employees saw the organizing effort. Our pitch was--"The union is us, we can only do what we want to do, when it comes to action, strikes, contracts, pickets, whatever--a contract is only a piece of paper. What the union is, is our determination, our solidarity, our ability to hang together for a common goal." People would hear that but at the back of people's minds, see, Richard was the union.

P: Definitely.

S: And this is why Richard had so much leeway. We could say what we wanted, but Richard's word was official. Maybe we thought Richard should shut up, but the uncommitted people didn't want to hear from us, they wanted to hear from Richard.

P: Because they've been used to hearing from authority figures.

S: We would say "The union is us," but all along people still had an image that the union is like a company to which you pay your dues and then it does things for you.

P: And they wanted the relationship clearly spelled out before they committed themselves. They didn't want all our ideological claptrap shoved down their throat meeting after meeting.

L: Don't you think skepticism is a reasonable response? You had chosen to legally affiliate with an organization which had legal responsibilities. The notion people had of unions is corroborated by the AFL-CIO itself--they have come out with the idea of trying to sell services to members.

S: No, it really comes down to the old ideas people have of unions. They don't even know about recent stuff like Mastercard unionism. It goes back to the fact that in the US people have no idea of what the labor movement was born from, what it has achieved, the fact that you have the 8-hour day, or the minimum wage because of the labor movement.

M: But you also have a guy representing the union who's not directly answering questions, not respecting the democracy of the organization.

S: But people wanted Richard to talk and not for us to talk, because he was in a position of authority.

M: How did the election go?

S: We won the election on Dec. 28, 1984 by a squeaker, 3 votes, 55%. Sales and warehouse went for the union and the office, managers and outside sales people voted against it.

M: Kind of a traditional breakdown: white collar and managers vs. blue collar and sales.

S: Those ten people who shouldn't have been part of the bargaining unit were crucial because if you take away those ten votes then the dynamic changes entirely (70% to 30%). The vote had all the negative aspects of being a squeaker though we knew we had most people behind us. But instead of a feeling of "yeah, we won, we've got it," there was a feeling of "Oh, the store's divided" and that hurt us later on. it became difficult to pull together actions.

P: And then, Flax filed objections to the election. If we had won by 80% he would have been at the bargaining table. The close vote gave him the confidence to use the legal process against us. Richard warned this would happen--that Flax would try to use any legal means to obstruct us. Of course the objections were lies. Five months later there was a hearing that established that the objections were invalid. The judge called Max's first witness "unsubstantiated" because he vacillated so much. And the VP of Sales was warned he was on the verge of perjuring himself.

S: In terms of the substance of the legal proceedings, the local board was actually quite helpful. They review cases and then have the power to hold a hearing or just to make a ruling. They ruled in the union's favor. Then Flax appealed their decision, to Washington DC, and that's where the process started messing up. It took DC months to organize a hearing and then after that hearing took place--

P: It went back to the regional and we didn't get certified until Nov. 85. In that year a lot of things fell apart.

S: What killed us is Reagan's NLRB. It's totally in cahoots with management. What do you do? I don't know.

M: What was management's strategy during that time?

S: There were firings and a lot of pressure. First they weeded out the warehouse. It was a real hotbed of union Support.

P: They also instigated a new (and oppressive) attendance policy in January after the election--a policy which pressured a lot of people to quit before they'd be fired. It was a major issue because it was a unilateral change of working conditions. All the people who are gone because of it either quit unnecessarily or were fired illegally. When confronted, management always blamed the controversy on the union drive, as if they had nothing to do with setting the policy in the first place!

M: Was there ever any idea of... OK, this is going to take a year. In the meantime attention and interest is waning, let's do something DRASTIC right now and put everything to the test--to hell with the legal part of it?

S: This gets right to the meat of the issue. Half of the people supported the idea of taking stronger action.

P: Like a slowdown or a picket or something.

S: But for the other half of the people, what was attractive about unionization was that there was an illusion of legal guarantees. With the union we were supposed to have protection, under the NLRB. A weak point in the organizing is that although many people have understood that ACTION is what we're finally talking about, other people see it as an extension of the legal system, believing that if you win a democratic election, the courts will protect you. So, they assumed Flax would accept the decision and be forced to cooperate. Those of us who wanted to take action had to keep asking ourselves if the risks of being labeled bullies would be worth the action.

P: And it would force people to make decisions, which they don't want to do.

M: So this was an issue of debate within the organizing group?

P: Yeah.

M: So some were saying "we want an action" and others were saying, "no, let's go with the legal process"?

P: It isn't even that they were saying no, it's that we knew already that their temperament was such that if we approached them they would just say "Oh No! I would never do that!" But a week before they were saying, "Oh I support what you're doing--I support the union."

M: So you figured you didn't have majority to do any action?

S: We had a majority in terms of support for the union but when the pressure started coming down and people started getting fired, we were incapable as employees of defending them. The only defense we had widespread support for was filing of charges against Flax. When we first filed a grievance, I thought it might be six months.

P: I'd hear people talk and they'd say stuff like "Oh, you're lucky you got certified at all-it could've taken 2 years!'' Two years, two months--we didn't know what was reasonable to expect.

M: A legal nightmare.

P: But we won! Even then we won. But it doesn't matter.

S: The thing which I almost say defeated us, well we haven't been defeated yet...

L: Officially the union is certified and functioning?

P: Yeah, but negotiations have broken down.

S: The weak link in negotiations is similar to that of the organizing--the issue of taking strong actions or going on strike. Flax was always saying "The union is going to manipulate you to go on strike," so we had to assure people that we wouldn't act unless we all decided to. But then later our bargaining power was weakened by this promise of sorts. People would read 'strike' into the smallest requests for support for the contract.

M: That's where all the baggage that people have about unions and strikes really plays a strong role.

P: We tried to keep grassroots stuff going. We published a newsletter ("Artery"), we tried to do things that would boost our morale. From time to time we'd have meetings, we'd formulate contract proposals even though it wasn't in the near future. We thought "let's be prepared." We tried anything just so people could keep their interest up. The newsletter was a success: it went out to customers, ruffled Flax's feathers, and got people interested again for awhile. But it had its time and we just kept on waiting and waiting for certification while people kept on leaving.

M: Do you think that the people who got discouraged will be less likely to get involved in organizing again?

S: There are 4-5 people left who went through the whole thing who think now this is a waste of time. But these are people who from temperament were always hesitant. A lot of people who were involved in organizing had their eyes opened and a lot of people went from being fairly uninterested to being activists. We had an active organizing committee of 16-18 people. That's a helluva lot of people. The crucial thing is not whether people in the future would support a walkout or a job action. I think the crucial thing is that you had people really think about their work situation. Especially when we first started putting a contract together. We had to sit down and think "How should we run this store, what do we want? What is a good health plan?" This I think was a crucial step for a lot of people, to really start to think about what it means to work--what does a job mean to me? How should a workplace be run? What is right, what is not right?

P: When we first started negotiating, we wrote in great detail about what each person does and why and how they should do it and how we wanted them to do it. But Flax had this clause he wanted to put on everything: management prerogative. Managers ultimately decide. What encouraged me though, is that we all sat down and worked out how the store should be run. It was such a project!

S: For example we wanted reviews by a joint labor-management review committee. Have raises and everything decided on by an employee and management joint committee. That's pretty wild shit for a contract.

P: Flax even said "I really congratulate you on this proposal, but there's no way in hell I'm going for it."

S: We could have pushed hard for this kind of thing if we had a real strong workforce behind us. But now you say "contract" and people yawn. And a lot of the employees are new and this union thing is outside of their experience. It's hard to get support when they don't know first-hand how bad it was right after the election.

P: Yeah, one new employee said to me "I'm sure I would get this worked up too if I were you, but until this happens to me I'm gonna just go by the book and trust in the rules." The biggest problem in the recent past was when negotiations started to break down and they brought in a federal mediator. All of a sudden the mediator's saying "You guys have a really good contract" even though we were giving up things right and left. He may as well have said "At least you have air to breathe." I was disillusioned because we had wanted so many things before and it became obvious over time that we couldn't have them, if we wanted a contract at all. So it felt like we weren't really writing the contract anymore.

M: Well that's their strategy--to wear you down.

S: We're looking at the contract now as a means of organizing support for the next contract. The change in strategy in the last six months was seeing this first contract as an organizing tool, i.e. we don't have strength, the 80% to be able to really push for concrete gains but we can see the first contract as a forum for organizing people. What we need is action, but we're not strong enough, so the question is how do we build that strength? That, in a sense, is what this first contract is all about. It's not like we're gonna get a lot more vacation, it isn't gonna give us more pay. It will, however, define work conditions where now it's totally undefined and they can invent any policy they want.

M: So you can grieve against violations of the contract?

S: Yes and once you set the grievance procedure into action you can use it to organize people.

M: And management can use the procedure to gum things up!

P: There's a time limit, within 5 days you have to do this, within 10 days you have to do that, 15 days total.

M: The whole thing has to be settled within 15 days?

P: Yeah. We think the grievance procedure is a great gain considering working conditions in the past. But many people can't imagine it affecting them directly and focus more on what they thought was promised them--big raises, whatever.

S: And ironically when we started, pay really wasn't the issue; it was to improve working conditions with job descriptions, grievance procedures and objective performance evaluation.

M: When did the economic stuff start coming in?

S: During the negotiations Flax said basically, "Fuck you on the working conditions, let's talk about economics." That's when he threw out our review proposal, he didn't move at all on the grievance procedure, he only wanted to discuss the money."

As of July 1986, some 20 months after the election for union representation at Flax, contract negotiations remain stalled and decertification is a definite possibility. Pauline quit in disgust several months ago, and Stefan also quit recently. Most of the other original organizers have also quit or been fired.