His Social Conscience Steered Career
By RACHEL CISTO
Nov 14, 2016
Thirty-five years ago, Anthony Wells got involved with Social Service Employees Local 371 by accident.
In the summer of 1981, Mr. Wells was injured on the job at the Spofford Juvenile Center in The Bronx, where he was a Caseworker. He said his first interaction with the union came when he was picking up his Workers’ Compensation check, and he was hooked from there.
Mr. Wells, 59, said his foray into social services happened as accidentally as his involvement with the union.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science from Baruch College in 1980, he found a job opening for a Caseworker in the Spofford Juvenile Center and applied.
‘It’s In My Blood’
“I knew I didn’t want to go into business,” he said, “I knew I wanted to work for the city.”
The New York native comes from a civil-service family—his father was a Triborough Bridge Officer, his uncle a Police Sergeant, and his aunt was the first black female Clerk at the Bronx Criminal Court.
His own interest in activism and social work started when he was elected to the student government at August Martin High School in Queens as a ninth-grader.
“I liked interacting with people and giving them a voice,” he said. “I guess it’s just in my blood to help people.”
Two years after his first experience with Local 371, Mr. Wells took a job as a Caseworker with the city’s Bureau of Child Welfare, which later became the Administration for Children’s Services, and served as a union delegate in the Queens field office.
Worked His Way Up
In 1987, he received a master’s in social work from Stony Brook College, then became a union organizer in 1988. Two years later, he was named the local’s associate director of organizing.
In 1995, Mr. Wells became the associate director of negotiations and research, and he was elected vice president of negotiations in 1999.
He also earned a law degree from New York Law School in 2001, and maintained a small law practice until he was elected president of Local 371 in 2011.
“I was the brokest kind of lawyer—one with a social conscience,” he said with a laugh. “You feel bad for some of these clients, so you don’t charge them.”
His goal is to make Local 371 a “resolution-based” agency.
“We’re not a complaint bank,” Mr. Wells said, noting that some of his proudest accomplishments as part of the local concerned negotiations—ending the 60-hour work-week for Houseparents without reductions in pay or benefits, successful lobbying for a 2012 state law that enhanced criminal penalties for assaulting social-service and juvenile-detention-agency employees while in the performance of their duties, and facilitating the re-hiring of 300 welfare workers laid off in 2010.
‘Live in the Solution’
He also oversaw the creation of an in-house “knowledge base” and crisis intervention team in several workplaces to ensure that any member needing assistance received it.
“Our job as a union is to protect the members, their benefits and the force of their contracts, but I think it goes deeper than that,” he said. “It’s also about improving the quality of life of our members both in their workplaces and in their communities.”
He also wants the members, who he says do some of the city’s most essential and difficult work, to feel like they “have a say in their destiny.”
“We’re not just the voice of our members, we’re their echo,” Mr. Wells said. “We don’t create the messages, we channel them.”
‘Why Pencils Have Erasers’
If his resolution-based strategy sounds familiar, it may have come from two of his heroes—Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
“We can all talk about it,” he said, “but they gave their lives for it.”
He acknowledges that maintaining stamina and energy in the face of adversity is hard.
“Anyone who does this work and pretends they don’t get tired either isn’t working hard enough or they’re not telling the truth,” Mr. Wells said.
And he doesn’t pretend to be perfect.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but remember: they can be fixed,” he said. “That’s why pencils have erasers.”