ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. We return tonight to one of the most important beats on this program: what's happening to the American workplace.
It's astonishing, but there are tens of millions of fully employed people working even longer hours than ever, who, when inflation is taken into account, earn less money than they received 30 years ago.
Take a look at these figures: in 1973, workers in the private sector were paid an average $9.08 an hour. Today in real wages, they are paid $8.33 per hour. The liberal Economic Policy Institute says one in four workers makes under $19,000 a year. So many people who get up and go to work every day still cannot meet a family's basic needs.
Across the country big corporations are trying to push wages even lower, but in Jefferson, Wisconsin, some workers and their neighbors are fighting back. Here's our report from correspondent Sylvia Chase and producer Peter Meryash.
CHASE: American workers … who believe they are fighting for their way of life.
For generations, their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers have earned their living on the other side of that fence at a plant that hasn't known a strike in all its 124 years of operation...until now.
RICE: You folks have done something other people in this country have failed to do, and that's stand up and fight for the rights of working men and women. I'm so proud of you.
CHASE: It's a fight to hang onto the kinds of jobs that have sustained middle class communities across America, with good health benefits, pension plans and even profit-sharing.
RICE: There truly is a war going on. That war is not in Iraq. That war is right here in Jefferson, Wisconsin. That war is right here in America. That war is a war on working people.
CHASE: These working people make a product most everybody knows...the pepperoni found on some of America's most popular pizzas. And that sausage is at the center of their struggle against another familiar name: Tyson Foods, a FORTUNE 500 company that bought the Jefferson plant in 2001.
SHULMAN: Here in Jefferson, the question is whether we're gonna let Tyson take jobs that take care of families, and make them jobs that are really poverty jobs.
CHASE: Beth Shulman. Her book, THE BETRAYAL OF WORK, makes the case that middle-income American workers are losing ground.
SHULMAN: That issue is the issue I think facing America in the 21st century. Whether or not we're gonna have an economy in which we have middle incomes, middle class, where we have healthy communities, where we have healthy families.
BUBOLZ: I grew up in Jefferson. I lived here all my life.
CHASE: Striker Kurt Bubolz, father of three.
BUBOLZ: And it was always a good community, you know? Middle-class. Safe. Good schools. A good place to raise your family.
CHASE: But Bubolz wonders, after union wage and benefit concessions, what becomes of the middle class? The hometown? The family?
BUBOLZ: It forces both parents to work. It forces less time with our children. It causes more stress on a marriage. You know, all of these factors, you know, that are tied in with family are also tied in with a living wage. We need a living wage in order to provide the best for my family, you know, both in time and quality of life.
CHASE: A quality of life rooted in the 19th century, when a local sausage maker built a plant that grew into an economic mainstay of the town.
FLEMING: My grandfather worked here and my older brother, my younger brother used to work there and my sister, my wife and I work there right now.
BUBOLZ: I'm the third generation, yeah. So I guess we got a good hundred years, 125 years at that plant, just, just in my family.
CHASE: And that may be why even in an era when unions are sometimes trusted as little as their corporate opponents, the strikers have seen the community rally to their cause.
At the local pizza joint, Ken's Towne Inn, they've replaced Tyson's pepperoni with a rival brand.
CHASE: Patti and Dave Lorbecki own the local Piggly Wiggly, where all Tyson products have been taken off the shelves.
PATTI LORBECKI: Everybody has either somebody they know personally, a family member, a friend, a neighbor who works for Tyson, so everybody's affected by it. Everybody.
DAVE LORBECKI: Whether it's the jeweler, the drugstore, or the True Value Hardware store, it just goes right on down the line. You go down any street, east, west, north, south and they all have signs, you know, supporting the Local 538 Tyson workers, because they've supported them in business all these years...
CHASE: The union voted to strike when Tyson stood its ground on a new contract which required wage and benefit concessions from current workers. Not only that, the contract would drastically reduce pay for new workers down from the old starting base of $11.10 to $9 an hour. That's just $18,720 a year.
SHULMAN: We all know what it really takes to support a family. Most experts think that it takes at least double that. So, $18,000 just can't support a family. It can't put food on the table. Can't pay for transportation to work, can't pay for affordable childcare, it can't pay for utilities, it can't pay for the basic things that every family needs.
CHASE: Enter overtime and both parents working. A stressful solution. But how does just one wage earner manage without overtime on Tyson's starting base pay, barely above the poverty line for a family of four?
Tyson Senior Vice President Ken Kimbro:
KIMBRO: We're in business to compete with other manufacturers making those products. In order for us to be in business and stay in business we have to be able to manufacture at a competitive wage.
CHASE: And if that is a poverty level wage?
KIMBRO: It's the work that we have to offer at the competitive wage that we need to pay in order for the facility to operate. That's the only answer I can have.
CHASE: Kimbro is head of human resources for Tyson. He says new workers at Jefferson could eventually earn $11 an hour base pay. But the union points out, that top rate for base pay is 10 cents less than starting wages under the old contract.
For Tyson, the lower wages are in line with what the company pays elsewhere.
CHASE: You have said, Mr. Kimbro, that the proposed contract will bring the Jefferson plant into line with other Tyson plants. The quote that I saw was Jefferson was in a luxurious position. What did you mean by luxurious?
KIMBRO: That probably wasn't my best choice of words. And I think what I said was that it had a luxurious contract. What I was trying to refer to is the contract at Jefferson was very expansive.
CHASE: Under the old contract, Jefferson workers paid next to nothing for their health plan. And after 25 years at the plant, they had six weeks' paid vacation. Those sorts of benefits were indeed generous compared to the rest of the Tyson system.
Tyson is a company which has enjoyed extraordinary growth. The Arkansas rags-to-riches story goes from family chicken farm to biggest poultry and meat producer in the world, operating in 27 states and 22 countries, employing 120,000 workers. Sales last year: $23 billion. Profits: more than $380 million.
CHASE: Is the plant not paying for itself? You said you were not pleading poverty, or…
CHASE: …saying that the Jefferson plant was inefficient, or costing you too much money.
KIMBRO: Well, what I was trying to refer to there, and maybe didn't do a good job either, is we weren't saying that the plant was not profitable. What we're concerned with is the long-term viability of the plant, if the terms and conditions, and benefits are aligned like they are.
SHULMAN: Tyson is a profitable company.
CHASE: Beth Shulman is also a former official of the striking union, the United Food and Commercial Workers.
SHULMAN: It's a company that basically hasn't had a loss in demand. Nothing has changed, other than Tyson believes it can extract this from workers.
CHASE: Tyson has contacted now several times this past week to inform us about comparable starting wages offered by other employers in the Jefferson area, some paying less than Tyson.
Those same kinds of wages can be found nationwide. In fact, one in four workers currently earns poverty-level wages for a family of four.
And the Jefferson story is being played out across America. Downward pressure on wages and benefits is at the core of a gathering supermarket strike wave rolling across the country. In California alone, 70,000 union workers are on picket lines.
The issue: benefit cuts and lower wages. The supermarkets asked for the concessions because they are feeling pressure from non-union Wal-Mart, the retail giant with 32-hundred facilities in the U.S. and the company reports 1.3 million workers worldwide.
The WALL STREET JOURNAL reported this week that Wal-Mart "… has used its low labor costs…to compete heavily against supermarkets, prompting them to cut costs." Those "low labor costs" are estimated between 8 and 10 dollars an hour on average. In California, the unionized supermarkets pay a higher average wage of about 12 dollars an hour.
Another Wal-Mart strategy to keep costs low, says the WALL STREET JOURNAL: "new hourly workers must wait six months to sign up for [health] benefits, and part-timers…can join the plan only after two years on the job."
SHULMAN: That's why this is important. If Tyson's can do it and Wal-Mart can do it, what we're gonna see is a ripple effect throughout our society in terms of the wages and benefits.
CHASE: NOW contacted Wal-Mart. The company wouldn't comment.
Wal-Mart has said it wants to move into Jefferson, Wisconsin too, but local businesses are trying to block them.
CHASE: What would a Wal-Mart do to this market of yours?
DAVE LORBECKI: To be very honest, I think you'd see the town become just a Wal-Mart town. That would be it. I think you'd lose the jeweler, the drug store. You'd probably lose both grocery stores. Definitely would lose the hardware store. That doesn't leave anything else left. The shoe store would be gone. So, I don't think there'd be anything left.
PATTI LORBECKI: And I guess until the people stand up like the Tyson workers are doing right now and say, "You know, we're not gonna put up with it. We're gonna stand our ground, and we're gonna fight." And that's to say the same thing that Dave and I are doing, in trying to keep Wal-Mart out of Jefferson. We're trying to stand up to a big giant. And it's gonna be a difficult fight, but we have to do it.
CHASE: The Jefferson strikers have been fighting now for 8 months and they are paying for their defiance. That's evident at meetings of the Union Hardship Committee, where they dig into the kitty when strikers have an emergency.
KERNAN: So you guys don't have no insurance either, huh?
BARE: No, we had it until she got laid off from her other job, but she's just a sales assistant right now, and there's no insurance there.
CHASE: They turn to a free food bank, stocked by donations from townfolk, local businesses and other unions… but with only $100 in weekly strike pay, they're all just scraping by.
FLEMING: I had all this money saved up. And now it's my savings, and it's all dwindling down to nothing now.
FLEMING: It's hard to find a job, when you've been in that plant for 20 years. You go apply, and people look at you like, "Well, you've been there 20 years. If we train you and that strike ends, you're just gonna go right back there."
THRASHER: It's tearing families apart because some people are putting pressure, one family member's putting pressure on the other family member to go back to work, you know? Maybe be a scab or whatever.
CHASE: If the striking workers were to accept the contract and go back into the plant today, Tyson says their average wage would be about $14 an hour. So why do the strikers care if new workers have to start at $9 an hour?
BUBOLZ: The worker who comes into Jefferson to work, comes to Jefferson to live. And if he isn't able to live, or even provide basic needs to himself, then he becomes a burden of the state, almost. With three kids and a wife and a husband on $9 an hour, you're gonna get food stamps. You're gonna get energy assistance.
CHASE: If you pay a poverty level wage…
CHASE: …which you propose to do in Wisconsin, working families the working poor, we call them can and do qualify for public assistance, like Medicaid, food stamps, on such wages. And I'm asking the question on behalf of taxpayers in our audience. Should we be expected to pick up the slack in a place like Jefferson, Wisconsin, because Tyson is paying poverty level wages and the workers can't get by on what they're earning?
KIMBRO: Well, my response is that we offer jobs. We offer jobs at what we believe is a competitive wage. We have a lot of competitors that pay much less than what we are currently offering in Jefferson, Wisconsin. We are doing that because we want to stay in business. We want that facility to continue to operate in Jefferson.
CHASE: And it's not a question of conscience for Tyson or any other company in your view.
KIMBRO: I don't know that I can speak for any other company. But I'm not ashamed that we offer work. I'm not ashamed of the wages that we pay.
BUBOLZ: A man should be able to stand on his own two feet. You know. Without having to go and ask for help every month. 'Cause I can't feed my kids. Because I can't pay the heat. It's not acceptable. To go and work 40 hours. And feel productive. But yet not be able to give yourself what you need. That's insane.
CHASE: If you come to no satisfactory conclusion with Tyson, and the workers begin to go in there at $9 an hour. What becomes of Jefferson?
FLEMING: Ghost town. I believe it's gonna be one big ghost town.
CHASE: How so?
FLEMING: I think people are gonna move out. You know, that live in this community. That work at that plant. I think they can't afford the high taxes in this state. And where could you work for $9 an hour and pay your bills? By the time you pay for your insurance, what's that leave you for a paycheck? Doesn't leave you much.
CHASE: This isn't the first time Tyson wages have been an issue. An undercover sting by the U.S. immigration service at the company's Shelbyville, Tennessee chicken processing plant caught plant managers on tape making a deal to hire 250 illegal aliens. That's the voice of a plant manager.
MANAGER: We're gonna hire, we're gonna hire every one of 'em that you bring us, you know, up to 250. Maybe by the time we get to 250, it may need to be more than that but... but we know that we can use 250.
CHASE: Tyson fired the managers involved for violating company policy. Two of them, Truley Ponder and Spencer Mabe, pled guilty earlier this year to hiring illegal aliens. They claimed qualified local people wouldn't work for what Tyson was paying, which was $6.89 an hour according to court testimony.
In his guilty plea, Mabe claimed "…Tyson refused to raise wages to attract new and retain old employees…" so he "… continue[d] to use aliens … knowing that many of these aliens were probably illegally in the United States."
He testified against Tyson when the U.S. government charged the company with conspiracy to violate immigration laws.
The indictment stated Tyson cultivated "a corporate culture in which the hiring of illegal alien workers was condoned…to cut its costs."
A jury acquitted the company and three executives. The foreperson said the government lacked evidence.
KIMBRO: We spend countless amounts of money, time, and energy communicating to people that we want to only hire people who are authorized to work. It's in our best interest as an organization to do that. We would not gain anything by knowingly hiring someone that was not authorized to work in the United States.
CHASE: So that no one here at the headquarters had any idea that this was going on in Shelbyville.
KIMBRO: No. Absolutely not.
CHASE: On a recent Friday back in Jefferson, Mike Fleming and other striking parents watched their sons play in the homecoming game. The Jefferson Eagles trounced the Watertown Whippets. Homecoming king Mike Frier says he and his mom have learned to live with the strike.
MIKE: My mom, like, cleans houses now so, like, that's what she does every day of the week, so we're doing alright now.
CHASE: Mike and three of his teammates are strikers' children. They have their goals set on a college education.
But they're beginning to understand that what their parents may once have assured them was a middle class rite of passage can no longer be taken for granted.
JOHNNY: They're not going to have enough money and they're not going to be spending money on me, like, if they were to help me out with tuition or whatever, they couldn't do that. I would have to work for it myself.
CHASE: What are you going to do?
JOHNNY: I don't know. Just hope for scholarships is all I can think about now.
CHASE: Nancy Thrasher's long desire to help her grandchildren get a college education seems out of reach now. She spent five years of her life slicing and packing pepperoni at the Tyson plant.
THRASHER: Tyson family, what you deserve. This is what Tyson family's got now. We have no jobs. We have no insurance for our kids. We can't send our kids to college. We can't buy no new houses. But we supposed to be Tyson family. What's wrong with this picture here?