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Middle-class dreams founder in factories


 Chris Alig, with his wife, Heather, in Canton, Ill., needs 20 hours of overtime a week at Caterpillar to pay the bills.
McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE
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Date published: 10/14/2012

By Alejandra Cancino

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO

--Jim Ellis had a job with benefits but gave it up for a shot at something with a bright future.

In this part of the country, that meant he wanted to work for Caterpillar Inc., the construction equipment powerhouse. Now Ellis is on the morning shift at the company's East Peoria, Ill., plant, installing fenders on tractors and working on hydraulic lines, a manufacturing job description that once promised an American middle-class lifestyle.

The reality for Ellis is nothing like that.

With the new job he started in January, Ellis' pay jumped by $5 to $15.57 per hour, but he has no medical benefits for himself or his 3-year-old daughter, custody of whom he shares with his ex-girlfriend. Between rent and child support, he acknowledges falling back on his parents for support.

Reflecting on his pay, Ellis recalled the years he worked as an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant. "It was one of the easiest jobs I've had," he said. It was also the best-paying job he's had. He earned up to $34,000 a year--a little more than $16 an hour.

His move to Caterpillar hardly evokes the kind of jobs most people think about when they hear President Barack Obama or his challenger, Mitt Romney, talk about bringing back manufacturing. The days when workers earned enough money to buy a car, a boat or a second home while supporting their families no longer exist for a growing number of people employed in manufacturing.

Factory jobs can still be good, but in the past three decades, benefits have eroded and pay has stagnated for many, or even fallen. Some entry-level manufacturing jobs pay so little that workers depend on government aid to feed their families and pay for health care.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said earnings of newer manufacturing jobs "are not poverty wages, but they are not middle class. If the jobs don't pay sufficiently better, sadly, it will turn the manufacturing sector into another low-wage market, and we already have many of those," he said.


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