One womans battle: Why a nation changed course

EFFINGHAM, Ill. — Gail Warner, 39, lives in her southern Illinois “dream house,” a few miles from here. Her husband is a loan officer at a local bank. Her son, who will turn 15 in June, is a high school freshman and her daughter, 3, has been through nine surgeries to correct a birth defect.

“Up until 2005 we both voted Republican, I voted for Bush twice,” Warner told the World in an interview Feb. 23. “We always believed that we little people wouldn’t have jobs unless it was for big business and the rich providing those jobs. Everyone seemed to believe that in Effingham, a very Catholic and very Christian town. Many people, even when I was in my 20s, didn’t use credit cards. My parents never used one. It was just something you never did.”

Warner said her grandfather was a major mover in her “conservative” upbringing. She admired his “wisdom,” she said, and, as a youngster, listened to stories of how he, as a returning World War II vet, had only 25 cents in his pocket. She was proud of “grandpa’s” success as a small farmer in the region.

Warner said she always had a “gift for the gab” and was able to put her talent to use on local radio talk shows, where she was “the Republican on there supporting Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest.”

All that was prior to 2005.

Today, Warner is a union organizer for AFSCME who has spent more than three years on a picket line. She voted Nov. 4 for Barack Obama and she travelled to Chicago this month to speak to 3,000 workers who packed the Plumbers’ Hall to demonstrate support for the Employee Free Choice Act. Why the big change?

“It was a lot of things that did it,” Warner said.

“The medical bills for my daughter’s surgery, the cost of caring for her as she suffered from the immune system deficiencies that resulted from the surgeries, and having to fight health insurance companies that reject ‘pre-existing’ conditions made my blood boil. I realized how ridiculous the claims were that our private insurance system was the best in the world. If it were not for public assistance programs available, we couldn’t have taken care of my daughter.”

Warner said her job as an outpatient secretary at Heartland Human Services in Effingham was another major contributor to the shift in her thinking. “This is an agency that is supposed to be doing good works. Yet in October of 2005 they removed our benefits and made us work more hours with no extra pay. I realized that only with a union could we fight back and we won an election for representation by AFSCME in 2006. Since then, the company has refused to negotiate. After a year we went on strike and a year later we were locked out. We’ve been on the picket line ever since.”

Then she had trouble finding work. She was qualified for five positions that opened up at a new theater. The pastor of the church that funded the theater, however, was on the board of Heartland Human Services. Secretarial positions with local doctors were out of the question because of their connections to the human services agency she was trying to organize.

Another factor in her political shift was watching the effect all of this had on her husband. “He gets up at 3 a.m. and works more than a 12-hour day, enabling us to pay our mortgage. Even though he loves his job, he has to work hard to pull us through. He lies awake at night, worrying – how do we pay for the braces or for this or for that?

“I began to realize that the whole ‘trickle down’ thing was a lot of nonsense. The rich are not going to let go of anything unless there’s a fight. I understand now how Ronald Reagan’s move to bust the air controllers was the start of a whole downward spiral for workers. And I started to think about my own father in a new light.”

Warner explained that her father was a union bricklayer. “I realize now that it was his union job that made it so good for us in our childhood. He could work six months, be out the other six, and there was still enough money to give us the good living and education we got. He used to tell me that, but I wasn’t as receptive as I should have been. Now, there’s no union jobs left around here, so we have to fight.” (It was typical for bricklayers and other construction trades to be out of work during the cold winter months.)

“What about all those things grandpa taught you?” Warner was asked. “First, he got out of farming just in time – before he would have lost everything. He’s 87 now and I talked to him just before the election. He said the economy was going down the toilet and that a vote for McCain would do nothing for me. He said I should go out and vote for what’s good for me and do what’s good for me.”