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EDITOR’S NOTE - They rise before dawn, punch the time clock

September 5, 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE - They rise before dawn, punch the time clocks and toil in factories every day. But in these tough times, many in America’s blue-collar ranks say they’re putting in more hours and have less to show for it. The first of a three-part series, ″Blue Collar - A Vanishing Dream,″ looks at people caught in the middle of falling wages and rising prices in what one expert calls ″the age of decline.″

Undated (AP) _ By SHARON COHEN Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - For Matthew Kolodziej, these were supposed to be the good years - no alarm clocks, no factory grind, no money troubles. He thought 30 years of hard work would guarantee that. He was mistaken.

Seven years later, he’s still on the job, pondering his finances and his future. His house is paid for, his six children grown but, at the age of 60, he can’t afford to retire.

″I’m standing still,″ he says, frustration creeping into his voice. ″You can’t save enough for your old age. What happens when I get to be 62? I collect my pension, my Social Security ... and in another five years, I’ll really be going downhill.″

David Trampas expected life to be easier after 18 years in one factory. But he has a mortgage and bills, and his wife works part time to help support their two children. He sees no easy days ahead, earning $26,000 a year.

″I feel like I’m going backwards,″ the 37-year-old worker says quietly. ″The American dream, it’s just harder to attain. You look to improve your standard of living, maybe move up to a bigger house, buy a car. Now it’s hard to do that. You’re trying to pinch pennies.″

Two men, two generations, one small steel plant. One man at the end of his career, the other near the halfway mark, sharing the same problem: Their blue- collar wages no longer secure a middle-class life.

In the recession-wracked Midwest, many on the assembly lines fear they’re working harder but falling behind. Some worry they won’t do as well as their fathers - and that their children could fare even worse. Job security is gone, more wives are working, prices are heading up and wages going down.

″For blue-collar Americans, the age of expansion ended a long time ago,″ said Katherine Newman, a Columbia University anthropology professor. ″The age of stagnation began in the ’80s. In the ’90s, it’s the age of decline.″

″There’s a lot of insecurity for them,″ she said. ″There’s a general pessimism about whether the U.S. can ever recover the dominant economic position it had in the past. This doesn’t feel like a temporary blip. It feels like a long tunnel, and no one is sure there’s an exit point.″

While more than 1 million manufacturing jobs disappeared in the ’80s, those working are in trouble, too, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington-based think tank. It says:

- Blue-collar wages have fallen 7.6 percent from 1987 to 1992. The average hourly salary dropped from $12.91 to $11.93.

- White-collar earnings, which rose through much of the ’80s, fell, too, in the same period, but less dramatically - from $15.82 an hour to $15.27 an hour, a 3.5 percent decline.

- The wages of young male high school graduates - those with up to five years in the job market - dropped 26.5 percent from 1979 to 1991. For women in the same group, it was 15.5 percent.

New England was the only region where wages increased in the last decade, the institute said, but many states in the area now are seeing salaries fall.

In the 1980s, ″we saw the Midwest economy in great trouble, the oil patch in great trouble, now it’s New England and defense,″ said Larry Mishel, the think tank’s research director. ″There are hardly any safe harbors in the economy where people can have a secure, decent standard of living. It’s almost as if, ’Who’s turn is next?‴

This recession also has hit white-collar workers harder than previous ones, but the impact is different, said James Medoff, a Harvard University economics professor.

″For white-collar workers ... it’s more on the employee security front,″ he said. ″It’s on the wage front that blue-collar workers have been really hit.″

But some economists dispute the bleak portrayal.

″The picture painted of the ’80s is all blue-collar workers lost out,″ said Richard McKenzie, professor in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California-Irvine. ″That is just a gross exaggeration of what went on.″

The standard of living increased for most Americans, McKenzie said, though perhaps slower than previous decades. He also said the wage statistics are averages and may not reflect factors such as fringe benefits.

McKenzie acknowledged that low-skilled, low-educated blue-collar workers lost ground because of global competition, robots and improved technology but, in an excerpt from an upcoming book, he noted that productivity increased and total employment rose by 19 million in the 1980s.

That’s little comfort to Virgil Blocker, now laid off from his job at a industrial food kettle manufacturer.

″For many years, I had no sweat,″ the 59-year-old Blocker said. ″My income allowed me to get a car, purchase a home. ... It was real sweet. ... I look out my window and say, ‘I had my day.’ It’s gone now.″

Blocker said he depends largely on $840 a month in unemployment, but has a $700 monthly mortgage. ″You have to live on savings,″ he said. ″You bite off little by little.″

Some who have lost high-paying factory jobs find the only way to compensate is to have two-income households.

″There’s no such thing as a housewife. That’s as obsolete as buggy whips,″ said Joe Davis, president of a Chicago steelworkers local. Even when wives work, Davis said, ″Two wages can’t make what the one made five, six years ago.″

It’s far different from a generation ago, when modest housing costs and growing wages propelled many blue-collar workers into the middle class.

Many sons who followed their fathers into the factories are struggling to stay there, and their children could be in jeopardy, too, said Newman, who has written about the declining fortunes of the middle class.

″The factories aren’t an option anymore,″ she said. ″For the children ... there’s nothing out there. This is a multigenerational story with a very unhappy ending.″

Paul Gipson, a union president representing Bethlehem Steel Corp. workers in northern Indiana, knows that.

″My father could have, and did say to me, ‘I’m going to do OK, but you’re going to do better than me.’ I can’t say that to my kids,″ said Gipson, who started at the mill in 1967. ″I can’t honestly look them in the eyes and say that.″

It’s not that the money isn’t good.

Clay Watkins, a 40-year-old Bethlehem worker, earns about $15 an hour - about five times as much as he did when he started there 23 years ago.

″I don’t have any more to show for it,″ Watkins said. ″It’s going out faster than it’s coming in.″

″A steelworker in 1970 could go out and buy a $45,000-$50,000 house without too much trouble,″ Gipson said. ″Today, it’s very difficult to buy that house that’s $120,000.″

Watkins, for example, has mortgages and car payments totaling about $800 a month. His wife’s bank job, which helped them secure better interest rates, helps provide for their daughter’s $19,000 business college tuition and their son.

″You look at your parents,″ Watkins said, and as they aged, ″things got better for them. There were less bills, they could afford things more, take more vacations. I don’t see that happening.″

Nor does Matthew Kolodziej, who planned to retire from Thompson Steel Co. Inc. at the 30-year mark when he became eligible for a full pension. But $17.25-an-hour wages didn’t provide enough cushion.

Once he bought a car every three years. Now, it’s every six.

Property taxes on his three-bedroom brick home in far west suburban Itasca are $3,300 a year, he said.

″My kids are gone, and I’m living the same,″ Kolodziej said. ″It’s definitely tougher. I’m not saying I’m starving to death, but I’m not getting anywhere.″

David Trampas was born the year Kolodziej started at the west suburban Franklin Park plant. He joined the factory straight from high school.

″After 18 years of working in a place, you think ... not that you’re owed a living, but that you can make a decent wage,″ he said. ″A few years ago, I was frustrated, but I have come to accept it.″

Even with his wife’s salary from her job as a part-time secretary, the couple has to carefully budget to pay the mortgage on their Franklin Park home and the $400 monthly day care for their two children.

They don’t dine out. Even a ball game is an extravagance.

″Ten or 15 years ago, we were able to sock away so much a week,″ Trampas said. ″You were able to go out, and not blow it, but spend it. Now, it’s on a need basis.″

″If I didn’t work, we wouldn’t have a home. We probably wouldn’t have kids. We couldn’t afford to feed them,″ said his wife, Pat.

Though both Trampases say they live simply but comfortably, there are some jitters about the future.

″I have a feeling that one of these days, they’re going to close those (factory) doors ... and he’s not going to know what to do,″ Mrs. Trampas said. ″Maybe I’m wrong. ... We’ll put away as much money as we can for the future and I’m not going to worry.″


Next: The Plight of Black Factory Workers

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