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Fighting for Hearts and Minds at FLAX

"I was there..."


Longshoremen march in 1934 Labor Day Parade up Market Street. The strike wave unleashed by the '34 waterfront strike often sought an 8 hour day as a basic condition, a struggle won and lost by San Francisco workers many times since 1865!
Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, SF CA

Flax Interview continues

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.

Racism, too

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.

Conclusion: Part 3

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