SEIU Leader Fights for Custodians’ Rights

Alan Banks talks to a faculty member about the strike details on April 26, 2016. (Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones / The Guardsman)
Alan Banks talks to a faculty member about the strike details on April 26, 2016. (Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones / The Guardsman)


By Andy Bays

International Workers Day is Sunday, May 1, also known as May Day. Its history involves more than just a colorful maypole, with long-standing traditions about honoring working people, demonstrating in the streets and displaying union pride.

Many employees at City College are members of the local union chapters of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT Local 2121, and the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU Local 1021.

For workers to get equal pay, benefits, and time off involves collective bargaining, which requires the employer and union leaders to negotiate contracts on behalf of the union members.

Historically, such efforts helped achieve the adoption of 8-hour work days, minimum wage, mandatory breaks for employees and the ban on child labor.

One leader, Alan Banks, is a City College custodian and the SEIU 1021 representative of the custodians. He has the demanding job of protecting the rights of the vitally important yet often overlooked workers.

Banks, the shop steward, has been upholding morale among the custodians and encouraging them to be more involved in the union.

“I’m the ‘ra-ra’ guy,” Banks said. “I made the Facebook page for SEIU Local 1021 and I keep the bulletin boards up and running. I also participate in a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.”

One behind-the-scenes victory changed the lives of many staff members at City College.

In 2014, Banks and his fellow union members pored over documents that proved the district was withholding money and taking advantage of workers. Banks knew he couldn’t back down from tough negotiations that would secure basic rights for his co-workers.

“We were negotiating with the district. We finally got the people on furlough back. We also got the calendar days back for the day-care workers lost them,” Banks said. “That was a major accomplishment.”

Tim Harper, a custodian at City College for 11 years before joining the Recycling Department three years ago, said Banks has been instrumental in keeping the custodians on the same page. “They keep us up to date on voting through emails. A lot of (custodians) are too busy to check their emails, but Alan is doing a great job,” Harper said.  

Huong Nguy, a City College custodian for 16 years, said she’s usually too busy to check her emails. “I get home, eat dinner and go to sleep. Sometimes my daughter helps me check emails. The union is doing a good job, I think.”

A custodian of five years, who only identified herself as Cherry, said, “I only know a little bit about the union. I don’t know exactly what they do. I came from China and my English is not so good, but I think Alan is helping us.”  

Banks spoke in front of SEIU headquarters recently as tense negotiations unfolded between the AFT and the administration. “If it weren’t for unions, we wouldn’t have rights. The union is in my blood,” Banks said.

Banks was born in 1961 in San Francisco to parents who were among the first in the Great Migration of African Americans who moved from the Deep South to the Bay Area in the 1940s. It was his grandmother, who attended City College in 1945, who was most instrumental in instilling in him a strong work ethic and respect for unions.

As a seven-year-old child he witnessed his uncle, Floyd Banks, lead the struggle for Civil Rights that occurred at San Francisco State. “I remember one time my aunt and uncle whisked me out of the way of danger as police in riot gear stormed the campus,” Banks said. “My family was very proactive in the area of Civil Rights and activism.”

Banks recalled a story from his childhood when his pregnant aunt tried to buy a house, but was told by the bank, “Go home and get your husband.” In those days, women didn’t have maternity leave and might lose their jobs when they gave birth, so they often couldn’t get approved for loans.

In the 1980’s, Banks joined the butcher’s union, where he worked for a few years before starting his own business. Banks Enterprise is described as a community “co-opoloy” on its website, much like a co-op, which works to find employment for disadvantaged youth and build a better community.  

In 2005, Banks joined the custodial staff at City College, and shortly thereafter became shop steward.

“I was going to retire the other day, when I turned 55,” Banks said. “But I realized there’s much more work to do. We need to extend the partial tax. We need a raise, because we haven’t had one since 2007. In this time of accreditation uncertainty, we shouldn’t change horses in midstream.”

Inez Banks, his wife, said Banks collects food every week to donate to the needy. “He does it because he is such a caring man. If he could turn our home into a youth center, he would, because his heart is so big,” Banks said. “He is a great husband and a wonderful father.”

Tito Dixson, a Recycling Worker since 2015, said the union should help find more student workers for the Recycling Department, as they are understaffed.

All things considered, Dixson is grateful for the union. “Banks is like a lawyer without papers,” he said. “He looks out for us.”

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