Valerie Browne, Former Union Organizer

by Alex Mold

Valerie Browne is a charismatic young woman who attempted to start a union and fought an uphill battle until she was forced out of her job. Today, she has given up organizing to work in a dance studio, an earlier love.

Two years ago, she went to work for the Brooks Brothers store on West 86th street and Madison in Eastside New York City. Her first day on the job, she was approached by two men who asked her if she would like to form a union. She asked for time to make a decision; they said a vote would be held soon.

Valerie then began working, as a sales associate for $11 per hour if she made sale goals, and any commissions beyond that would be added to pay. Eventually, since they were short-staffed on stock personnel to carry goods up and down the stairs, she began to also work that job as well. As she was working 30 hours when she asked for 20, and 40 hours when she was asking for 30 hours, she started to wear flats and other comfortable shoes. Management requested that she wear heels and make up, but this caused her to walk up stairs that now would not be up to modern building code in heels. As a consequence of her double jobs, she developed plantar fasciitis and had difficulty walking, a condition exasperated by wearing heels. Even when she attempted to bring in a doctor’s note explaining why she could not wear heels, it was met with deaf ears.

One day thereafter she went into the management’s office and asked when the meeting for the union was, to which the management responded that the first day was the vote for forming a union. The management representative threatened to fire her for asking questions about forming a union and asked that she stop seeking a union.

She became angry, especially since other Brooks Brothers in the city are unionized and by default the union that represents the workers in the other stores should legally represent their store. Then the time came for organization.

First Valerie asked Derele, a union organizer, for advice about how to form a union. Next, she began interviewing workers at the store trying to gain an understanding of the issues. One of the major issues that also affected her was the scheduling where workers were asking for a certain number of hours and receiving significantly more hours. She began to educate the other workers about unionizing and eventually began to start the process of unionizing. When managers heard there were talks of unionizing, they began to spread fear and yelling at employees, she said.

It is important to note that Valerie feels that although the management was wrong in how they treated the workers, they can be nice people and they are required in their job description to report when talks of unions happen. A fear began to spread among to hopefully future employees about who would talk about them in order to gain favor with the management.

The vote on unionizing was called and they were two votes shy of the 50% required for recognition as a union. People said they voted no for three reasons – they did not speak English and did not understand, they did not want to lose their jobs, and one person said she could not participate in politics because she was a Jehovah’s Witness. After the union vote took place, the harassment from the management became too intense for her. After she left the union, her friend Michael attempted to take over but was fired after an intentional scheduling change so he would miss a shift. Valerie quit her job in favor of fitting point shoes for dance. Valarie would use her Bachelor in Arts for dance from University of California at Irvine.

Point-shoe fitting was it was a specialized job at the same store where Judy first fitted Valerie for point shoes. As a specialized job, when Judy worked at Capezio, she made a six-figure salary. When she retired, Mary took over for a $50,000 salary annually. Mary’s departure left the job open to Valerie for less pay.

Valerie was surprised that the stock manager knew nothing of dance, and apparently felt threatened by Valerie’s knowledge. The stock manager made her life “a living hell,” Valerie said. Valarie, in an attempt to keep her job somewhat pleasant, attempted to form a union but the stock manager continue to make her life a hell by intentionally giving her wrong directions to a meeting and telling her the wrong time so she showed up late. This reason and the $1,200 bonus she was promised and asked for were the reason she was fired.

Valerie would go on to complain to human resources for Capezio but heard no response from them and eventually quit trying to return to her job. She actually trained the person who would take over for her and they cut the next person’s pay lower than Valerie’s pay.

Eventually, Valarie started a dance company. She has about 20 dancers and wants more for her upcoming show in the Nutcracker at the Players Theater. To relax from her stressful life, she has started to paint and enjoy herself teaching dance.

 

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