Related: 'Dropping out' of the middle class

Interview: Detroit utility worker laments city's suffering

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 

In Detroit, a city scarred by the slide of the auto industry, Marshall Watkins describes the emptiness of the city. The utility worker says scaled-back jobs, foreclosed homes and splitting families left his neighborhood a different place.

Marshall Watkins is a utility worker from Detroit and a member of Utility Workers for America.

At the One Nation rally interviewed by reporter Kat Aaron:

What's the biggest change you've seen in Detroit over the last couple years?

Foreclosures, lost jobs. Being the auto capital of the world, we lost a lot of jobs in the auto industry. The impact in my union was when the auto industry closed there was less electricity needed, to provide for the plants that closed. So it impacted our jobs because of the reduction in our area, the trickle-down effect.

Have you felt the impact of the recession in your union?

Oh, yeah, most definitely. I see members from my own group, which is transportation and warehousing, they've closed buildings down. And the company has tried to maximize what they can get out of the workers, by moving them into one building and reducing the amount of members we had servicing several organizations throughout the city and throughout the metropolitan Detroit area.

What do people do when they, if they lose their job? Or if they get laid off from the union job?

Well, in our particular group we haven't gotten laid off, but some of our members were forced into jobs that pay half of what they were making prior to, in their skill set jobs because those were the only jobs the company said were available and what was left.

Is there one incident or event or story that stands out that represents for you the changes that you've been going through?

Yeah. I would say, just looking around my neighborhood. Seventeen years ago, when I moved into my neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, every home, in a two-block radius, had a father and a wife, a family in the home. Now we have, possibly out of 75 homes, we have roughly about 20 homes that are still occupied. And several where it's caused divorce, and hardships of that nature as well. Financial stress, people have separated, people have just walked away from their homes. Definitely. I walk out the door and I see it every day, an empty house right next door.

Are you hopeful that things are gonna change? That this is gonna get better?

Yeah, that's why I'm here. I'm hopeful that it will change. We represent change. We're here to ask for change. We're to ask that the government recognizes that people come first.

Our groups here, we have jobs. But we want the other groups, the other areas to have jobs. Because we need that money spent in the economy to boost it. So I mean, I can only spend so much. Right now I'm holding in reserve, I'm not trying to spend anything cause I don't know if I'll have a job tomorrow. So I'm not trying to make any major purchases. I'm trying to wait out the storm and see what's gonna happen.

If you could speak directly to the President, to members of Congress, to elected officials in Detroit or in Michigan, what do you think they need to know that they don't know right now?

I'd say come together, put aside your differences, and put America back to work again. Stop sending our jobs overseas. Stop sending our jobs to other countries, Mexico, Canada even, China. Keep our jobs here in America. There's people here that wanna work. We want an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. That's all we want.

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Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.

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The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.