Debra Bergen is known as a tough contract enforcer.
Debra Bergen, PSC’s director of contract enforcement and a university grievance counselor, is retiring, after nearly four decades in the labor movement. At PSC, she has literally changed lives; more PSC members than she can count have relied on her and the department she leads when faced with denial of tenure, denial of reappointment or other devastating employment situations. While the PSC does not win every case, Bergen’s leadership has been central to the union’s strong record of defending members’ most basic rights and saving their jobs. Even members who have never faced serious difficulties on the job benefit from the work of Bergen and the contract enforcement counselors and staff: the union’s ability to challenge violations of the contract and bylaws acts as a brake on potential violations throughout the university. Strong, member-based contract enforcement of the kind Bergen has developed protects every member.
Bergen built her career in the labor movement as an organizer for home care and hospital workers at Local 1199, Hospital and Health Care Employees Union and as an organizer and contract administrator for physicians in public and nonprofit hospitals at Doctors Council. In 1991, she brought her skills to PSC’s contract administration department. Along the way, she earned several certificates in labor studies and a joint Cornell/Baruch Master’s degree in industrial and labor relations. Bergen taught contract administration and collective bargaining for nearly 20 years in worker education programs at Cornell’s ILR School in NYC and headed the adjunct faculty union there. Over several decades, Bergen helped to organize and expand the women workers’ summer school with other labor educators from the United Association for Labor Education.
President Barbara Bowen said, “Debra understands, in a moving and visceral way, that union contracts are about the power workers have when we stand together. And she knows that we need that power just as much to enforce a contract as to win it. Often the real struggle over contract provisions comes long after they are negotiated, as management, through outright challenge or laziness or neglect, can attempt to undermine what we have gained. That’s when Debra steps in, and has stepped in literally thousands of times. Her aim, always, is to empower members to lead the fight themselves. One of the most significant parts of Debra’s legacy is the generations of PSC members she has trained and mentored to use our collective power to defend individual workers.”
In 1977, when she graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a degree in psychology, working for unions was not in her plans. She learned the power of organizing at her first clerical job, once she joined the rank-and-file organizing committee at Syracuse University.
“I originally joined because of my objective working conditions. Pay was terrible. I thought it was a way to have my voice heard,” Bergen told Clarion. “Later on, I saw it as something that I was meant to do.” When she moved to NYC, she became active in the National Association of Working Women’s (later District 925 of SEIU) effort to organize clerical workers.
Through an oral history project at a labor education course, she learned about the radical past of her grandmother, Anna Stern, who was an active member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, a suffragette and a socialist candidate for alderperson in the Bronx in 1917. Bergen was inspired by her grandmother’s involvement and saw her own work as a continuation of a family tradition.
“I felt that that kind of progressive politics wasn’t new to my family. I was very inspired by her. My career is something that she would be proud of,” Bergen said.
When she joined the PSC in 1991, Bergen became the union’s second director of contract administration and the department’s only professional staff person. Through the years, as the union has grown, she has led the expansion and transformation of the department to become a vital part of the backbone of the union. Today, the department has two staff grievance counselors and an administrative assistant who, along with trained union members who serve as part-time grievance counselors working at the union office and as campus-based grievance counselors, work with members so they understand how the contract protects them and file grievances when necessary.
Bergen and the contract enforcement staff offer ongoing contract education workshops to broaden knowledge about the contract among members, and they monitor contract violations and whether new contractual provisions are being implemented correctly. Bergen is proud that her department’s role is a “combination of contract education and contract organizing.”
“Management is always developing strategies to work around the contract,” Bergen said. “Unless members know what their rights are and we use contractual procedures to enforce them, the contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Her department has closely monitored implementation of new contract provisions including untenured faculty reassigned time, implementation of the adjunct professional hour, HEO assignment differentials and the adjunct three-year appointments. Every year, the department monitors whether instructional staff members receive reappointment notices when they should and timely annual evaluations. They also ensure that faculty governance rights and due process are protected. When contractual provisions are violated, the department files grievances.
Bergen is adamant that the effectiveness of her department depends on members knowing the contract and alerting the union when violations occur. Howard Prince, a former professor and dean at Borough of Manhattan Community College who is now a PSC part-time grievance counselor, said Bergen excels at building leadership in the union and teaching members the provisions of the contract and where likely violations can occur.
“She’s marvelous at staying on top of it all: tracking all the cases, staying in touch with everybody’s situation, knowing what levels cases are at,” Prince told Clarion. He’s worked with Bergen for nearly two decades. “She’s created a model for anyone who will take this job on how to do it and what needs to be done to stay on top [of an issue.]”
To train members who want to serve as grievance counselors, Prince said, Bergen uses a mentorship model, pairing a new grievance counselor with an experienced one. She walks members through the entire grievance process and prepares them for situations they are likely to encounter. She also uses grievances innovatively, often recommending that a grievance become the basis for organizing on campus, not simply one individual’s issue.
Bergen hopes that contract education continues to be an important aspect of the department.
For right now, she’s looking forward to a break. “My position is a very full one. It takes up a lot of my time – emotionally, physically, mentally. I’m looking forward to relaxing in all those areas,” Bergen said. However, she will miss the camaraderie of working with other like-minded people at the PSC office.
After retirement, Bergen has a plan to take off with her husband and camp wherever the spirit moves them. She is also looking forward to spending more time with her husband and sisters. She also plans to teach adult literacy and further her involvement with the Workmen’s Circle, an organization committed to the celebration of Yiddish culture and the advancement of social and economic justice. Once she has time to decompress, she plans to teach in labor education programs and be involved in the labor movement in a broader way.
“I’m not leaving labor behind,” Bergen told Clarion. “I’m just doing it differently.”