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Flax Interview part 3

"I was there..."

Management Counterattack

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. I 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. 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"?

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.

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