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Whenever Robert Johnson puts in 12-hour shifts, which is often because he needs the money, he knows he should grab a bite in the factory lunchroom because he's a diabetic.
But he rarely does because a slice of pizza at the Caterpillar plant costs nearly $3, and that's beyond his means.
Glued to a bare-bones budget, he saved for weeks to buy a five-pack of $7 T-shirts. Sunday visits with his kids, 53 miles away in Springfield, are out of the question if he doesn't have gas money.
He didn't always live this way.
Six years ago Johnson was earning more than twice as much money--$29 an hour--at a nuclear power plant in nearby Clinton. Then he got laid off and tumbled into an underworld of low wages and slimmed-down benefits.
This underworld is now the reality, or a disheartening look into the near future, for thousands of workers as the industrial Midwest undergoes the most wrenching economic transformation since the bad old Rust Belt days of the 1970s.
With the forces of globalization leading companies to slash costs, move out of the country or go under, workers who don't bring a clear competitive advantage to work every day are vulnerable to having their pay cut.
At this moment the risk is clearest in the auto parts industry, where Delphi Corp. has filed for bankruptcy court protection, and its chairman, Robert "Steve" Miller, has threatened to cut wages from $27 an hour to as low as $9.50.
But look at any number of industries where American factory hands are competing against the Chinese or the Cambodians, whether in textiles or furniture or appliances, and the fallout is the same: The standard of living for the Americans slips.
"For the United States, it's the end of labor as we once knew it," Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, wrote recently.
A version of this new reality is taking place in Decatur, where Caterpillar Inc. introduced hundreds of new hires last year. Job creation was the good news. The bad news: Starting wages were cut to $10 an hour from $20.
The result is that Caterpillar and Decatur have become a laboratory of sorts for witnessing the impact of wage cuts. Working and living side by side are Caterpillar employees doing the same kind of work for different wages. The lucky ones are paid according to the old scale.
The unlucky ones are struggling, like Johnson, who got his $12.24-an-hour Caterpillar job in January 2005. It was days before he was due to start work for $7 an hour at a Target store in Decatur.
The new job has hardly lifted him up financially.
"I live on just the bare necessities," he said one day recently in his one-bedroom apartment, a small, darkly lit place with nearly empty walls. He pays $385 monthly rent for the cheapest place in town that he thought he could live in.
Growing up in Decatur, he expected factory work to pay off for him as it did for his father, a Caterpillar engineer, and for neighbors who earned very decent wages as blue-collar workers at the many factories scattered around town.
Indeed, while Decatur lost nearly half of its factory jobs in the last 25 years, there are survivors who are reminders of how the old system used to work.
Kent Smith started at Caterpillar's Decatur plant 31 years ago when he was 22 years old. For years Smith didn't like the job. It was boring and dirty. But he stayed because of the pay, the pension and benefits that were hard to find elsewhere.
Until last year, Caterpillar picked up nearly all of his health-care costs, a financial boost that's almost extinct among companies today. Now Smith has to pay for his premiums, with out-of-pocket costs growing yearly.
But he earns just over $25 an hour as an electrician. With his Caterpillar job and his wife's salary as a manager for the local telephone company, he has done well financially.
Smith lives in a two-story wood-frame house set amid 10 acres of hickory, oak and ash trees just outside Shelbyville, south of Decatur. He has a tree-shaded 13-foot-deep pond stocked with fish. He also has a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a snowmobile.
Smith doesn't talk about his lifestyle with new hires at work because "I try not to rub their noses in it." He is a reserved person, but he has no hesitation in sharing his thoughts on what's happened at factories like his.
"Corporations want the American worker to tread water or sink so other workers around the world can catch up with us," he said. So, too, it strikes him that a job at Caterpillar "used to be a good job, but now it's just a job."
Caterpillar won't say how many new workers it has hired at the new lower wages, but union officials say it is 1,400.
Dave Stanley, president of UAW Local 751 in Decatur, remembers Caterpillar's warning to union officials during the last round of negotiations, and the feeling that the union's back was against the wall.
"They said that if the contract were not approved, the plants would die on the vine," he recalled. The union fought Caterpillar for 6 1/2 years in the 1990s over the wage tiers and other concessions that it ultimately accepted.
Stanley said Caterpillar has handed out hefty raises since last year in order to hold on to higher-skilled workers, but it has not done the same for those with lower skills, who are the bulk of the workers in Decatur.
He wonders how the new workers will support their families on the lowered wages.
Caterpillar spokeswoman Linda Fairbanks said the company was simply fitting the mold when it reduced pay.
"Our wage and benefit package is competitive in the local market," she said, adding that the company relied on a vast array of data.
`It's the best I can find'
Don Dragovan was thrilled when Caterpillar hired him more than a year ago. He thought he had signed up for the blue-collar gravy train in his early 50s. Neighbors congratulated him.
At the time, Dragovan was working three jobs: one as a part-time psychology professor, one as a painter and another doing whatever side job he could find. It was hardly ideal for someone who had suffered a heart attack a few years before.
His dream didn't totally come true at Caterpillar. He was put on the lower pay tier and today earns about $15 an hour as a painter. He is disappointed. But only slightly.
"The reality is this: It's the best that I can find. Now I have a full-time job, not three, and I have health care. I didn't have that [health care] before," he said.
Dragovan figures the company's health-care plan has covered more than $30,000 in medical bills for his family in the last year.
The problem is, he still can't get by. Not with two kids in college and another headed that way next year.
That means he recently paid $357 for new brakes for a car with more than 150,000 miles, when he had been thinking about buying a new one. It means buying day-old items at supermarkets and bargains like the $1.15 loaf of bread he picked up the day before. It means soon dropping his telephone line and depending on his cell phone. It means looking for a second job --again.
"It's a constant question of `do we really need this,'" he said.
To save money, he relies on a small space heater. It is usually enough to heat the small, three-bedroom house he bought for $37,000 in 1993.
At work, he will hear other new hires boasting that they will do only 60 percent of the job because that's what they are getting paid. He doesn't agree with that kind of thinking.
But there are times when he sees veteran workers not putting out as much as he does, and it clicks that they are making $17,000 more a year for the same work. Such times he wants to remind them how good they have it.
Johnson, a quiet, soft-spoken man in his late 40s, has similar thoughts on the job.
Every so often he would like to tell the new hires, who last worked at a fast-food place and who are starry-eyed over the 12-bucks-an-hour pay scale, that their jobs are not stepping stones unless they get more education.
But he also would like to explain to his young, recently hired bosses--college graduates who regularly tell him that he won't go anywhere without a degree--that they make him feel like a second-class citizen when they say such things.
Johnson wishes they would realize that he has learned things from working in a factory that years of college studies wouldn't give him.
He never wanted to work in an office, which is why he didn't mind going to work years ago at the Illinois Power Co. nuclear plant in Clinton. Likewise, when he was laid off in 1999, he didn't consider retraining because he wasn't sure what he would do. He thought he would keep doing factory work.
He knew that factory work had changed. But he didn't realize how much wages had declined.
"Ten years ago, many factory workers were making very decent wages. But I don't think we'll see that again," said Robyn McCoy, head of the federally funded Workforce Investment Solutions office in Decatur. It handles job training for laid-off workers in the area.
Such a fact of life matters greatly in Midwest communities like Decatur, which were nurtured by well-paying factory jobs for people who showed up for work with little more than two strong arms and a willingness to put in a hard day.
A learning experience
As Johnson climbed down the pay scale, he shed his middle-class goodies: a large, comfortable house in Lincoln, a new car and a pickup and a racetrack car he dabbled with. He is still paying for the two cars that were seized by creditors.
He pays $285 every other week in support for his three children. That leaves him $516 to spend every two weeks. His monthly rent is $385. He pays $215 monthly for his 2001 Chevy Lumina. He has the minimum car insurance, $30 a month. Food costs $150 a month.
The last movie he saw was shown at a church before Christmas. His parents bought him the ticket.
Without the overtime he works--as much as he can get--he would not be able to pay for his doctor visits or medicine.
Still, he was surprised recently, he said, when he went to pick up prescriptions that cost $104. He had to return home for more cash and later had to pinch money from other expenses.
But one morning recently, as he got ready for work, he was feeling upbeat about his future and stoic about his losses. He talked about moving on, making the best of things, learning to start over.
"It's been a learning experience. It shows me I can do things I once didn't want to do. ... You just have to keep a positive attitude. But a lot of people are giving up," he said. "The way things are, you know you have to take it as you get it."
"Cat," the young cat he picked up recently, bounced around the apartment, keeping him busy. "Cat" costs money, but she keeps him company, he said.
In time, Johnson said, his pay will go up, or maybe he will get a better-paying job.
"We're in a cycle right now where corporations have the advantage, and unions don't," he said. "But soon the cycle will change."
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