A lot has changed in the half century since Teamsters 856 members Renee Cohen and Sylvia Shepard started their careers in the car rental industry at the San Francisco International Airport, but there is one thing that’s remained the steady: union membership.
“The union was like my husband,” jokes Cohen. “It gave me a pension, medical benefits, and protected me. I love the Teamsters – I was able to buy a house and raise a kid all on my own because I had a good union job. It gave me everything,” she said.
Shepard agrees. “I’ve always been a union member. It meant I was treated right, paid well. It’s a good thing we’re union. Without it, the company could do anything,” Shepard said.
When they started in the late 1960s, car rental companies catered to their main customer: business men. Hot pants, false eyelashes, and platform shoes were required parts of the Hertz uniform said Shepard. “It was quite the get up,” she laughed.
Applicants for what was then the “counter girl” position were subject to height and weight checks, and after they were hired, had to take cosmetology courses to ensure they could properly apply their makeup and comb their hair just right. But it wasn’t all aesthetics. Agents were expected to be well-versed in geography, so they were able to act as concierges, referring clientele to restaurants and attractions and math courses were also required, as everything was done by hand. “We had to do all the calculations – mileage, daily fees, taxes – all ourselves. No calculators, no adding machines,” Shepard said.
From behind the counter, the agents could track the changes in society through their customers. “We were in the world without being out in the world,” Cohen explained. “We began to see more and more business women as customers. When I helped my first woman doctor, I thought was just so cool,” she said.
Although they worked for rival rental agencies, Cohen and Shepard became fast friends. Today, that friendship endures: Cohen and Shepard see each other frequently and often take cruises and other vacations together.
While Shepard’s still on the job and serves as a Local 856 steward, Cohen clocked out for the last time on November 10, wrapping up more than 50 years of service at Avis. “I was a little sad that morning before work, but then I was happy. So happy,” she said. “I never thought I’d be there for 50 years, but I love customer service. You can help people and make them feel really good,” she said.
Cohen’s got plenty to keep her busy in retirement, she plans on doing a lot of volunteering, traveling, and is starting a blog about her life.