Related: 'Dropping out' of the middle class

Interview: Union member protests limited health care

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 

As companies send jobs overseas, Debi Banks of Milwaukee is facing decreased health benefits from her employer. Bates, a member of the Communication Workers of America, says the decision of the state government to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees will not help the economic outlook.

Debi Banks is a member of the Communication Workers of America in Milwaukee.

At the One Nation rally interviewed by reporter Kat Aaron:

What kind of change have you seen in Milwaukee over the last few years?

It's gone down, very much down. We are now the fourth-most poverty stricken city in the country, and it just keeps going down. It's because of what's going on in the political scene. We have got to come together. We have got to get jobs. We have got to get work together. We have got to get better education, health care. That's the only way we're gonna come out of this, is to work together. I'm from the CWA, which is Communication Workers of America, and I work for AT&T. And so, that's the main thing: We need to come together as a nation. That's why we're here, One Nation!

How has your shop or your union been affected?

We had very, very good health care, and the last contract, which was last summer, they just destroyed it. They took away everything that we had, and basically told us if we didn't like it, we could, you know, we weren't gonna get anything. And because we couldn't really face the fact of striking because they would just move it somewhere else, we felt like we had to take it. And they kept saying, "Oh, it's not going to affect us that greatly."I had pneumonia this spring, and the bills that I had were unbelievable. I've never had bills like that before. I don't know how people can do it if they don't have health insurance. I have health insurance and I was having a hard time. And so, yeah, it's devastating.

Have jobs been moved overseas in your field?

Yes. Very much so.

Six months later:

How are things now, compared to how they were six months ago? Are you feeling more optimistic, more pessimistic?

Things are worse. I live in Wisconsin. Things are really worse. Things are scary.

Because of Gov. Walker?

Yes. It’s absolutely terrifying, what’s going on in Wisconsin. One of the things is that he maneuvered to strip the unions of bargaining rights, and he stripped the bargaining rights of all public workers. No, I take that back, not all public workers. The unions that backed him for his election, he left alone. Which is kind of strange. It’s kind of telling. And it’s so polarized in this state. It’s for Scott Walker or against Scott Walker. There is absolutely no middle ground whatsoever.

My daughter,who is a teacher, is going to be laid off. He’s totally stripping the public schools of all their money. He’s giving more money to the charter schools, which are actually former public schools, and no money to the public schools.

We have a contract coming up next year, next spring, and this will be the hot topic. You’re going to lose everyone. It might take a little bit longer, but we’ve already started losing health benefits. We pay more. It’s not going to get better for us, at all. It’s going to get worse. I don’t see an end to this. All of our politics are so polarized right now. And unless people start looking at the good of the nation instead of being so anti one-way-or-another, I just … I’m very scared for the nation.

It’s gotten to the point where it’s the big bucks that drive everything, instead of people really caring about what’s going on, and trying to come to compromises, and work together. It’s beginning to be like a civil war, the haves and the have-nots.

Taking away money from education and health is not going to put jobs out there. It’s going to destroy lives. Walker, his big thing is we’re open for business, and we’ve going to give tax breaks to the businesses. Giving all these tax breaks to big business is counterproductive, to me.

How’s your daughter holding up?

Right now, she’s in a horrible depression. She’s still teaching. She has to go in there every day and try and do the best job that she can when she knows that come June, she’s going to get a layoff notice. Last year she got a layoff notice and at the very last minute they received some stimulus money, and that’s the only thing that brought her back. This year, with Walker’s cuts and no stimulus money, it’s a foregone conclusion that she’s going to get laid off, with a lot of other people. She feels like OK, she can go try to get a job in these charter schools. She already taught in a charter school. The reason that she went to the public school, No. 1 to help the kids, and No. 2, she saw the waste and the corruption of the charter schools, and she was so dissatisfied that she went to the public schools. Now even though she has 10 years teaching experience, she’s kind of low on the totem pole, and she’s going to get laid off.

They’re very concerned because they had just bought a new car. They’re trying to figure out how they can sell the new car back. They’re trying to cut back. They’re scared they’re going to lose the house. To me, is that productive? You’re cutting all these jobs, cutting all this money, you’re making more people poor. They’re going to be struggling.

My brother, who works for the state, is going to be cut. He’s barely making ends meet now. He said he figured it out and that’s going to be like a paycheck a month short. He said, “What am I going to do? I’m barely making it now. How am I going to feed my kids?”

When you’re barely making it to begin with, it’s going to be hard. I’m going to try to help my daughter as much as possible. Hopefully, she’s not going to lose her house. We’re going to try to work it out. If need be, they might have to move back in with me. But that isn’t what … it’s not what I expected. She paid to go to college. She has a degree. Her husband also has a degree. He also works for the city, so he’s getting cut, too. They get furlough days, so that’s money out of the paycheck.

People have been struggling to get ahead, and now you feel like you’re just starting at the bottom again. I wouldn’t mind retiring but there’s no way I can. I’m 57.

I thought, you know, I have a decent job. I work for the phone company. I thought OK, I could probably retire at 62 and still be able to make it. But there’s no way now. Absolutely no way. I’m thinking I’m gonna have to work much longer than 65. And you know, when I was growing up, you always heard about how you know, get an education, work hard and do the best that you can. And it’s just, you know, it’s sad. It’s very sad.

And another thing, I was kind of planning on moving. I don’t live in the best neighborhood. But I own my house. When I bought it 15 yrs ago it was a HUD house so I got it cheap. I spent a lot of time, blood sweat and money fixing it up. It’s very nice now. I had to redo everything on it, the roof, the siding, the walls, the windows. The floors. And yet it’s worth less now than when I bought it 14 yrs ago. That’s scary and sad. There’s no way that I can move. Probably ever, the rate things are going.

I’m very dissatisfied. And scared. I’m scared. I really am. I don’t see it getting better any time soon, and unless people start worrying about this country as a whole, instead of their own greedy needs, nothing is going to get better.

Remind me what you do at AT&T.

I work in a call center. A lot of jobs have gone overseas. I think that makes it extra hard. I think that people are dissatisfied, when you call a call center and even though they speak English, they really don’t speak English, and they’re very hard to understand. Besides the fact that they’re taking jobs away here, I really feel like there’s going to be a backlash of people not wanting to buy services and goods because you can’t understand when you call someplace.

I’m almost surprised to hear AT&T still has call centers here.

I think they’ve tried to bring some of it back, because people are so angry about it. We had a tech center for high-speed internet overseas, but people really could not understand the technicians. And people were angry. They did bring that back.

How long have you been doing that work?

17 years.

What did you do before that?

I was actually in a sewing factory. I worked in a sewing factory for a good many years. I had lived in Kansas when my husband was in the service, and so there weren’t a lot of jobs. The only job was the sewing factory. There were quite a few sewing factories in Milwaukee when I first moved here in '84. But most of them are gone. And they all went overseas. The company I was with actually did go out of business. That’s why I started looking at what I wanted to do. I went back to school for sales and marketing. And just by chance, started working at AT&T. And it’s not that I love the job, but the benefits were good. The pay was good, and that’s what kept me there. But it’s not getting better. It’s going downhill. Here you thought you were getting ahead, and you’re not.

I have a granddaughter whose 18. She’s trying to decide what she wants to go, into and it’s almost impossible. What do you tell her? There aren’t jobs, so what industry? She’s having a real hard time.

It’s a sad, sad state. And again, yes, recessions happen, but we should have learned something, from the Great Depression. If you’re just repeating the errors that people made, what did we learn?

To me it’s more about greed. I think that’s what caused a lot of this.

I came from a family that had humble beginnings. I worked very hard at not having credit card debt and things like that. But the thing is that people will only do what they’re allowed to do. So a lot of people bought houses because they were told that they could afford them. Oh yeah, we’ll give you this deal, sign the papers, here’s the amount and you’ll have a balloon payment but don’t worry about it, by then you can afford it. Again it was greed. You wouldn’t have had those opportunities before that. You would have had to have some way to prove you could afford it. I think had there been tighter reigns on what was happening, we wouldn’t be in this situation. The Madoffs, if there were controls, that wouldn’t have happened. But there are no controls. Big business can do anything they want.

And like I said, it’s so polarized. Families split right now the middle. I have one brother that’s struggling and one brother that is so for what’s happening in the capital, it’s sad. We’ve had some hot discussions that finally I had to say “Hold up, wait a minute, I love you. I want to end this conversation because this is getting a little too heated.” My workplace is like that also, just totally polarized. I think that’s sad. Almost to the point of are we headed for a civil war? I was around in the '60s, and that’s when a lot of the civil rights things were going on, and people were so either one way or another, and it was horrible. That’s kind of the way I feel now. People aren’t stopping to understand what’s going on with the other side.

What do the next five years feel like, look like to you?

Scary. Extremely scary. Basically, trying to get by. And doing my best to try and help my family survive in any way that I can. I don’t see where I’m going to have the chance to get a different house, move to a better neighborhood. That’s not going to happen. And then also with the fact that I might be having family members move in with me, just because they’re going to need to, whether it’s going to be my daughter or my grandson. It’s not a rosy picture.

We’ve had recessions before. Was it like this in the past?

No. NO. Never. You kind of cut back or did what you needed to do, but not where … almost the hopelessness. Watching people have horrible depression because of it. I wasn’t there in the '30s, when the Great Depression was, and I’ve kind of joked, well, maybe I need to sell some pencils, go out on the street and sell pencils. That’s what it’s starting to look like. They’re saying it’s over. It’s far from over. I think it’s going to get worse before it even starts to get better.

It might be getting better for people that have money. But for people who don’t have money, it’s getting worse.

I’ve lived a great portion of my life already. I feel sorry for younger people, I really do. I hope that it gets better.

What Went Wrong

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.