Stand up, fight back

Interview with North Shore Labor Council delegate, Amy Banelis

Today, Amy Banelis is a delegate on the North Shore Labor Council and an employment specialist at non-profit, Triangle, Inc. But not so long ago, in August of 2017, the single mother was let go along with three others in retaliation for starting a union at the Malden non-profit which trains and helps find employment for the developmentally disabled. Banelis was rehired last year as part of a settlement between her employer, Triangle and SEIU Local 509.

What follows is my interview with Banelis on standing up and fighting back.

How did you get involved in organizing employees at Triangle?

“My brothers and sisters at Triangle and I, first began talking about forming a union a few years ago. Those conversations began simply out of casual conversation about working conditions (such as safe staffing ratios), wages, and benefits. We wanted a voice in our workplace. We wanted a seat at the table to address these concerns. And we wanted our union to improve conditions for not only ourselves, but for the folks that we provide services for.”

What were employees most concerned about?

“That’s hard to say because there have been so many various concerns that we all felt needed to be addressed: wages was certainly a common one. There are many staff who provide direct care services in our residential programs who only make minimum wage. But folks wanting autonomy—a voice in our workplace was a very common desire.”

What changes have you seen occur at Triangle since the union was voted in?

“I see people less afraid to voice their concerns when there is an issue. I see our union beginning to be a more integral part of our everyday work life. And I see the bonds that we’ve formed throughout these past few years remain strong. We are currently in the process of negotiating our first contract, which is rather exciting!! And we should begin to see more changes and improvements once we come to an agreement on that.”

When you were let go, how did you survive financially until you got your job back?

“Luckily, I was able to collect unemployment and also briefly worked for an amazing non-profit housing agency in Malden, until I could go back to Triangle.”

Anybody you want to thank for supporting you?

“My brothers and sisters at Triangle: for fighting the good fight and coming out on top despite the challenges and barriers we faced during the process! They are brave and fierce!

Joe DiVincenzo, Jim Kane, and Bill Davis, the three men I was fired with, who did not go back to Triangle when I did but who fought a hell of a fight and who have continued to remain deeply supportive. Couldn’t be more proud to have them in my life and have gone through this with them.

The entire labor movement showed such beautiful solidarity throughout our fight, our continued organizing and our ultimate vote to win the union. Solidarity is what will strengthen and grow our movement! We need to continue to stand with one another.

I would like to thank The North Shore Labor Council (where I am a delegate) and the Women’s Committee, who have been supportive of our union as a whole since day 1. And for the individual support they’ve provided me and my daughter Ashley throughout. And to Katie Cohen, who was just promoted to Executive Director of the council just recently. She’s been a valuable source of wisdom and support, and a great advocate! That’s what solidarity and community looks like!

Also a big thank you to SEIU Local 509’s leadership for the wonderful support! I’m so incredibly proud to be a member of this local!

On a personal level, I want to thank my family for giving me the individual support to have been able to get through the last year and a half. It’s not easy being a single Mom who can take the risks I’ve taken and be active in the labor movement without that crucial support. “

Advice to employees that feel like they are being taken advantage of by their employers?

“Know your rights! We have labor laws that protect us on the job, and knowing what those rights are can help protect us. Talk to your co-workers. If you are being treated unfairly, it’s very likely that your co-workers are too. Find common issues and organize! Building a union at your workplace is about getting to know your co-workers and learning about issues that impact you as a group and building from there.”

"Right to work" is obviously bad for unions, what do you say about that movement?

“Right to Work is an attack on the working class. An attack on your right to a voice, and equal say in your workplace. Plain and simple. Corporations have shelled out boat loads to push RTW policy, not because they care about workers and our right to “free speech”, but because they are threatened by the strength we have in our unions when we fight collectively. It’s nothing more than a power grab to attempt to weaken the power of the working class.

Post-Janus decision, union members have shown that they are sticking with their union. We are seeing more union members actively fight back against these attacks. Political education on what these attacks mean for the working class is crucial for union members to continue to grow and survive.”

Why are unions still important?

“The working class consistently faces attacks on our accessibility to adequate and affordable housing, healthcare, education, and employment. Unions are a vehicle for the working class to fight for access to those crucial needs at a higher level, so we can provide for ourselves and our families.

Workers, despite their industry, across the board— deserve a voice in their workplace. Workers rights are constantly under attack, and the best way for the working class to help safeguard those existing rights and ensure that we are being treated with dignity and respect in the workplace; is to unionize.”

A message for local elected leaders?

“Politicians need to start prioritizing workers rights in a very real way and actually advocating for the working class. Tax breaks for corporations are not helping workers. Concessions for minimum wage increases are not helping workers. Not prioritizing safety concerns (like those addressed by gas workers during the gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley and during the National Grid workers lock out) is not helping workers or the community. Not protecting children and firefighters from exposure to toxic flame retardants by neglecting to sign an important bill to safeguard the community from those hazards is not helping workers.

We also need politicians who are going to fight for the working class to have access to affordable housing, quality and equal education, fair wages and affordable health insurance and who will not allow corporations to buy their own interests.”

You are a single mom is your daughter proud of you?

“Yes, I’m a single Mom. My daughter’s name is Ashley, she’s 10. She does tell me that she’s proud of me. Which keeps me motivated and inspired. Ashley has attended nearly every union meeting, she’s got a pretty clear understanding of the importance of workers rights.”

Anything else you want to share with our readers?

“Stand up and fight back. Because when workers fight, we can win!”