With Barney’s in the midst of contract negotiations, I sat down with Evelyn Bernacet to get her perspective on the process and to discuss her time with the company and with the Union.
Beginnings at Barneys
Evelyn Bernacet has worked for Barneys since 1982. She was recruited to the company by her sergeant in the Army National Guard, Ron Burich, then manager of the shipping and receiving department. Evelyn served in the National Guard for 25 years, working as a mechanic in an infantry artillery unit, and completing her service even while she worked at Barneys.
When I asked if she thought the military was good preparation for civilian work, she said:
“Yes it was. Because what it does – it really prepares you for out here, especially when this is a men’s –used to be – a men’s world. So it really prepares you, you know – what’s going to happen, how men react towards a woman, trying to give her orders and everything like that – how to deal with it.”
On Being a Shop Steward
Evelyn became a shop steward at Barneys shortly after current Joint Board General Secretary, Fred Kaplan, started working as the Union representative there. Talking with Evelyn, it’s clear that she’s motivated by a clear sense of justice and fairness, and it’s these principles that guide her leadership. In her words:
“Be yourself. Be a woman or man enough to admit when you’re wrong or right. I’m a type of person that if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. What else do you want me to do? I’m wrong when I’m wrong. When I’m right, they could cut off my head, but I’ll still fight it because I hate to be accused of things I don’t do.”
Keeping that balance can be a tough challenge and being a shop steward can sometimes put a lot of pressure on a Union member. I asked Evelyn what the hardest thing is about being a shop steward. She said:
“The hardest thing about being a shop steward is seeing somebody lose their job. It’s very hard because, as it stands now, everyone needs a job, an opportunity. I mean, you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean they have to find you guilty of something. Give that person a chance. Give them a second chance because this world’s made up of chances, you know, and I think that everybody deserves a second chance. You don’t know how this person’s gonna act on his second opportunity.
And when it comes to fighting for what’s right, Evelyn’s no stranger to a struggle. Fred, who’s known her since her first days as a shop steward, says “ever since I met her she speaks her mind and has been willing to fight for justice on the job.”
Among the challenges she’s faced in her department are persistent safety issues. She notes, “Downstairs, I’m always fighting the safety issue. I mean I don’t want anyone to get hurt or anything, and when something doesn’t smell right, I go to the managers and say listen, you need to get these people out because the fume or anything like that you know they can’t work in these conditions, they have done it…to be honest, to getting my point across with this company…I don’t have a problem with it.”
This same fearlessness and sense of justice have been tremendous assets to the Union in bargaining over the years.
Evelyn has been participating in negotiations since the early 1980s. Back then, she says, it used to be a smaller committee at the table with the Pressman brothers. Bob Pressman used to bring a big pie and talk about where the money went. “He made the right choice when it comes to the company but also made the right choice for the people, for the employees of his company…”
The most important change, she notes, came after the Pressman family sold their interest in the company. Evelyn sums it up as follows: “There’s a lack of communication between the company and the non-selling. I remember that we used to have a meeting once a month when Bob used to be in the store and when we said, ‘Bobby, this is wrong’ – it was being corrected. But now we don’t have that. We don’t have that communication with the up people and the lowest people.”
But, in her words, it’s a long term struggle, especially with the new company leadership. And it’s this perspective that really highlights the importance of Evelyn’s long experience with the company.
When talking about the shipping and receiving department she gets particularly animated. “You have a…group here that is the backbone of this company and it’s not being recognized as the backbone of this company. We made last year – we shipped out more than 3,000 packages a day. Okay? You think that the company came down and says – [inaudible] you did a great job. Is there any way that we could pay you? Or give us something or give us a bonus or something, you know, like, something that really shows the appreciations that we did.…[instead] they’re still fighting because they don’t want to give us another week [of vacation]….That’s one of the ways that they could show their appreciations to the non-selling, not only to the non-selling, but to the people that have worked here more than twenty years. They’re not doing it. They’re pocketing up the money, but they’re not doing it. The conditions with working downstairs – it’s awful, but unless we’re negotiating a contract – that’s when they start fixing things, but when we complain, it takes months before they fix it. It’s ridiculous!”
Before the last round of negotiations, Evelyn organized a petition on behalf of the shipping and receiving associates, making a clear case that the company had failed to address some long standing health and safety issues in the receiving department. Organizing with her coworkers, she says, “we have a group that’s willing to speak out now, but I also told them, I says: don’t start something and not finish it. You gotta, like they said, you gotta walk the walk. Now if you gonna talk talk, don’t B.S….” After the effort, Evelyn brought the petition with signatures to the negotiations, after which the company set up a meeting to address the issues.
Her expectations for this set of contract negotiations are sharp but realistic. When I asked her what she hopes to get out of this contract, she gets right to the point:
“They should give us what we deserve. We deserve a better place where to work, to look at us as human beings, not as a dollar sign because I feel as that’s how the company is looking at us – as dollar signs. We’re not dollars. We’re human beings. And if you want somebody to work for you – then you know what? You gotta learn how to bend some of the rules. You gotta learn how to treat these people so they could keep them and be loyal. Ok? …I’ve been through a lot and I’ve seen and I saw the good part of this company, but a lot of people that come down is not seeing it. So the company has to bend – they don’t have to bend all the way – but they could meet us half way.”
On Building the Union
Indeed, it’s clear when talking with Evelyn, that her participation in the store, her work as a shop steward and in bargaining, is not just about the short terms gains for this year or the next, but about building the Union and about doing what’s right – getting justice not just at Barney’s but for all workers.
When I asked her what she would say to non-union workers at other stores who want the union, her answer was particularly telling. First, she said, she would listen to them and see their point of view, trying to understand why they wanted the union. Then, she said, she would tell them:
“You’ll be safe in the union. First of all they can’t fire you… And they cannot push you to work hours that you can’t afford, that you can’t do. As a united person, you’re entitled to a good medical plan. Why you have to pay out of your money when you got a company that’s not giving you a health plan? That’s the most important thing in a family – a health plan that is suitable for them and they could afford it. That’s what I should tell them.”
“Then I will tell them: look for the good people, good people that are willing to talk to you. Don’t get backstabbed. Get people that you know, that you could trust, and you could come and tell them how you feel and nobody else would know. And also: communication is the key word. Okay? That you will be allowed to talk to your union representative without being watched. And that’s what I’d tell people.
“I feel that a lot of companies should have a union because they’ll be safe. They’ll be under an umbrella of protection. And I wish – I’m telling you the truth – I wish that every company in the United States… that a lot of people have the union, that people would be treated like human beings, not like animals. That what I would tell them: that we should work together and not against each other.”
Thirty years on and Evelyn continues to build the Union, bringing her wisdom and experience to the shop floor and to the negotiating table. Union representative for Barneys workers, Elba Liz, sums it up best, “What inspires me about Evelyn, she’s always willing and able to help. She was very helpful in my decision to leave Barneys and work for Local 340. She’s a true Union member and a friend.”