January 27, 2015
Originally posted on Labor Press
In her 25 years with UFCW Local 1500, Barbara Balos, 48, has helped run several major chain supermarkets throughout the city. For the last several years, the Long Island mom has been the non-foods manager at a bustling Bronx Pathmark, overseeing ordering, deliveries and more. Balos has a knack for getting things done – and that steady determination has not only helped her employers succeed, it’s also helped win better conditions for co-workers; raise a ton of money for numerous charitable organizations, and even change the way New York State protects its children.
“I have been a shop steward for Local 1500 for about 8 years, and have many wonderful opportunities with the union,” Balos says.
Many times, Balos is called upon to help correct unsafe working conditions like an overflowed grease pit or wonky loading dock – the kinds of things that could land an unlucky employee in the hospital.
Lately, however, Balos’ problem-solving skills have been tested trying to help co-workers reclaim lost hours guaranteed under their union contract, and securing new apartments for hard-pressed employees who’ve been reduced to part-time status as an unintended consequence of the Affordable Healthcare Act, and no longer able to make the rent.
One co-worker was forced to flee an abusive home environment and actually ended up on the street, while another had his Brooklyn apartment sold beneath his feet.
“Believe it or not, it happens a lot,” Balos says. “Unfortunately, a lot of the people I work with are part-timers. They’re getting 16-hours a week, and it’s tough to make ends meet. With the Obama care law, we’ve had problems with part-timers not getting enough hours, because they can’t go over that 30-hour threshold, so a lot of times, management will cut back on hours. But we help out our own.”
Over the course her union career, Balos has repeatedly met with members of the New York City Council, to make sure they understand just how important labor unions continue to be for workers like her.
“People are afraid to talk to management and stand up for their rights, or even to ask a question,” says Balos. “Many times, management will try to get away with things they shouldn’t.”
Just this past Christmas, Balos says the nicest present she received was a phone call from an older co-worker who faced the very real possibility of losing his job after arbitrarily being reassigned to a position he was not well-suited.
“I became a shop steward because I truly enjoy helping people and consider the other members as my family,” Balos says. “We rally around each other.”
Balos initially became politically active about 11 years ago, following a devastating incident which compelled her to try and convince the New York State Legislature to toughen the laws concerning convicted sex offenders.
“At the time, anyone who was a level 2 or 3 sex offender got off their probation period, and were off the sex offense registry,” Balos says. “There was talk from some senators about passing a bill to keep those offenders on the registry for life. So, I wrote to my local senator, told my story, and got a few thousand petitions signed to change the law.”
Not long after that, the Local 1500 shop steward was shocked to learn that her moving appeal would be heard on the floor of the New York State Senate.
“It was a great honor to help out,” Balos said. “We won that battle and got the laws changed. It was wonderful to know that I was a part of that.”
Balos continues to be passionate about activism, especially union activism.
“I think people are trying to cut corners and cut costs,” Balos says. “But our union can be tough. And management, no matter where they are, doesn’t want that.”
For the last few years, Balos’ daughter has been working at a non-union shop while attending college. For the Balos household, the enduring importance of organized labor is not some abstract ideological question to batted around endlessly by elites. Its efficacy is demonstrated daily in real life.
“When [my daughter] first started there, literally ever day, she should would come home saying, ‘I’m going to get fired. My boss is going to fire me because I asked for this day off. He just fired another person for no reason,’” Balos says. “There have been a lot of things that she goes through where I tell her – if you were union, that would not happen.”