In normal times, Daryl Kratochvil makes $8.20 an hour working in a Nebraska meatpacking plant, good wages by rural Midwestern standards. Janet Erks does even better -- $9.25 an hour at a similar plant in South Dakota.

But Kratochvil spent most of this year doing odd jobs for whatever pay he could get -- a few dollars, a bushel of sweet corn. Erks hasn't drawn a paycheck from the meatpacking plant since May and recently started working part time at a Sioux Falls, S.D., grocery store for $3.75 an hour.

Kratochvil and Erks were on strike this year, walking the picket line, surviving on slender checks from their union and trying not to sink deeper into the ranks of the working poor.

When the paychecks are coming in, their wages at the meatpacking plants put their families on the cusp of the second economic quintile, hovering at the $18,700-a-year cutoff that marks the entry point to the middle class. But the issue in the industry is wage concessions, not increases, and for Kratochvil and Erks the battle has an edge of desperation.

Daryl Kratochvil, who asked not to be photographed for this series, is 50 years old; Janet Erks, 49. Both are in what statisticians consider the peak earning years, the time when most workers are enjoying the best financial health of their lives. Too young to retire, too old to start over, Kratochvil and Erks are tied to their jobs and fighting uphill.

"You never figure on going backwards," said Erks, who took a $2.44-an-hour pay cut four years ago and is trying to avoid another.

At a time when many in their age group are buying a few luxuries, planning for retirement and enjoying the economic freedom that comes of financially independent children, Kratochvil and Erks are still worrying about buying food, paying utilities and keeping the car running another year.

And there is another, constant worry: their health. As a group, they are more vulnerable to the income loss that results from an extended or debilitating illness and often lack adequate insurance against the expense of medical care.

The concern is heightened for Kratochvil and Erks, because of their age and because they work in an industry that has one of the nation's highest worker-injury rates. In a given year, three of 10 meatpacking employes can expect to be injured on the job.

"That worries me all the time," said Kratochvil, who has come home twice with stitches where a steer kicked a gate into his head.

Janet Erks, a diabetic, cannot afford the $216 a month it would cost to maintain her health insurance while she is on strike. "I've had to cancel doctor's appointments. I just can't afford to go to him," she said. "It bothers me that I don't have insurance. I guess I just hope the good Lord will take care of me."

Trust in providence is one of two recurring themes in conversations with Kratochvil and Erks. Neither wears religion on a sleeve, but it is there -- an undercurrent of faith that stresses perseverance more than hope, the gospel of hanging on.

"My mom always said the Lord never gives you more than you and Him can handle," Erks said, and Kratochvil echoes the sentiment: "Everybody's got days that're hard. You just get through it."

The other theme is betrayal. The immediate villain is The Company, but the frustration goes deeper. Both grew up in homes with strong work ethics, guided by parents who taught them loyalty to the job and assured them that hard work would pay off. It hasn't.

"The hardest part is that my father gave them 38 years of his life, and my brother gave 23," Erks said. "I gave them 30 years of my life. You work damned hard. And they have no respect for us at all."

For Kratochvil and Erks, the new watchwords of "competitiveness" and "technology" translate into lower wages, less job security and increasing despair. He is resigned; she feels duped.

"When the company cut our pay last time, people believed them," she said. "We thought they needed concessions. Now they're making $28 million a year and they're paying the top man $375,000. And the politicians are saying 'Come to South Dakota, we'll give you the cheapest labor in the country.' "

Kratochvil and Erks describe themselves as Democrats and conservative, but placing them in a slot on the political spectrum is not quite that easy.

"I haven't followed politics that much, and I'm going to have to ask you this," Kratochvil said. "Is Reagan a Democrat or a Republican?"

Erks and her husband, Don, are supporting Democratic candidate Jesse L. Jackson, who has attended rallies for the striking meatpackers. "He seems like somebody you could talk to, somebody who would listen," Don Erks said. "It seems like he couldn't be bought."

Nonetheless, when Vice President Bush made a political appearance in the area recently, Janet Erks attended.

"I wouldn't vote for him," she said. "He's not for the working people. I wanted to ask him a question, but he never acknowledged my hand. I just wanted to ask him if he ever had to borrow money to go to his son's funeral, like we had to."

And then she wiped away tears. Regimented Life and Rigorous Frugality

Hilda Kratochvil sits at the dinette in her small, immaculately clean kitchen and laughs at the question.

"How would I describe us?" she said, with a merry twinkle in her eye. "We're dull."

"Dull," to Daryl and Hilda Kratochvil, means a life without credit cards, spontaneous spending or debt. Supper out is a rare treat. Vacations are planned -- and paid for -- months in advance. Their modest frame house in Hawarden, Iowa, a community of 2,800 about 40 miles north of Sioux City, is mortgage-free. The cars are old but wholly owned.

The television set is new, replacing the old one that lost its picture tube after 13 years. But there isn't much time to watch it. Kratochvil rises at 3 a.m. for the hour-long drive that will get him to work at the IBP meatpacking plant in Dakota City, Neb., by 5:15. Hilda spends her day babysitting for six small children ("I've had as many as 10 at one time," she said.)

From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., both work as janitors at a local church, a job that often occupies much of their weekend as well. By 8:30 or 9 on any given night, it's lights out at the Kratochvils.

It is a regimented life, but it keeps the Kratochvils financially afloat. Rigorous frugality allows them to save for the occasional major purchase -- a new television, a lower-mileage used car. More important, it allows them to put something aside for the event that keeps the Kratochvils in the stratum of the working poor: The strike.

Working 40 hours a week, Kratochvil earns just over $17,000 annually. Hilda's child-care earnings add about $2,000, and the recently acquired janitorial work contributes $4,000. It would be enough to put the Kratochvils narrowly into the middle class, except that Kratochvil is out of work for extended periods at least once every four years, when the United Food and Commercial Workers contract at IBP expires. There is always a strike.

"They never fail," Hilda said.

"We work four years and then we have a year off," Kratochvil added with a wry smile.

The most recent strike started two weeks before Christmas last year. Kratochvil returned to work in August.

Kratochvil has worked in the stockyards at IBP for 17 years, herding cattle into the chute that leads to the killing area. Before that, he worked at a concrete block and silo construction company in Hawarden.

It wasn't the pay at IBP that attracted him. It was a back injury suffered in an accident at the block company. The injury forced Kratochvil to undergo disc surgery and left his back weakened. When he returned to work, he said, "They had me scooping gravel, and I said I'd be damned if I'd be a cripple at 35."

It was 1970, and IBP was involved in one of its inevitable strikes. "I was a naughty boy," Kratochvil said, staring somberly into his coffee cup. "I scabbed them."

Striking workers bombed his house. "They laid eight sticks of dynamite by the front porch," he said. "There was glass on the bed where my son was sleeping. He was about 5 years old."

Kratochvil remembers driving 95 miles an hour through the darkened streets of Sioux City on the way home from work during the strike, his windshield shattered by crossfire on the bridge that led back into Iowa.

"He still went to work," Hilda said quietly. "He never quit."

When the strike was over, Kratochvil stayed on, enduring the taunts of his fellow workers. Of the hundreds of replacement workers hired by IBP during the violent 1970 strike, he is the only one still working there.

"Why?" he said. "I gotta put food on the table. I've got a 6th-grade education. I can't read very well. When you've got no education, there's not much else you can do."

The jeers eventually subsided, and when the union strikes IBP now, Kratochvil is on the picket line. "We couldn't tolerate that place without the union," he said. "IBP would run right over us."

The Kratochvils accept the periodic strikes. They can be planned for. They end, sooner or later. What makes the Kratochvils apprehensive is the thought of the unexpected: an extended illness, for example, or a disabling injury.

So profound are their concerns about the cost of medical care that the Kratochvils strained their budget to take out a $160-a-month health insurance policy while he was on strike. When the strike ended, they decided to keep the policy to supplement the coverage offered by IBP.

The company policy pays 80 percent of medical care. When Hilda underwent surgery recently, the Kratochvils were left with a $1,000 hospital bill. The supplemental policy pays nothing toward the first $3,000 of medical care, but it pays 100 percent after that.

"It goes up to $1 million," Hilda said. "I hope it's enough."

Retirement isn't even a topic of discussion. The union's most recent contract includes a pension plan for the first time, but Kratochvil isn't confident that it provides much for him. The plan won't become effective until 1990, by which time Kratochvil will be 53, and the size of his pension will then depend on how much profit the company makes.

"I won't be able to retire at 65 because I won't be able to afford it," he said. "At the plant, they work you until they carry you out."

The Kratochvils have a son, Lyle, who is 23 years old and working as a diesel mechanic in Tucson. They visited him for two weeks last Christmas. It was their first airplane flight, and the tickets had been paid for since March.

"He has a brand new trailer house, a new pickup truck," Kratochvil said proudly. "He makes $9 an hour, and he's getting a raise."

Life will be better for his son, Kratochvil said with conviction. "He has a lot more education."

For themselves, the Kratochvils have simple dreams. The house needs repairs, perhaps new siding. "I could sure take care of a new house," Hilda said wistfully. "That's all I know to do."

Her husband thinks about a new, or at least a newer, pickup truck. The '76 Chevy, once overhauled, has 310,000 miles on it.

"That comes first," she said. "He's got to get to work."

'Things Are So High, and Wages So Low'

Janet Erks went to work at the John Morrell meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., a week before she graduated from high school. Her father, a longtime plant employe, got her the job against his own judgment.

"My father wanted me to go on to school. I wanted to go into nursing or interior decorating," she said. "But you get down there and start making what is good money for this town . . . . " Her voice trailed off.

For a time, it seemed like the right decision. By the late 1970s, Erks and her husband, Don, were bringing home nearly $50,000 a year, Don working as a truck driver and Janet working in the shipping department at Morrells.

With seven children to raise -- two hers from a previous marriage, four his and one of theirs together -- it was an adequate living but not an affluent one. They bought an old house on a corner lot in Lennox, S.D., about 20 miles south of Sioux Falls, and fixed it up themselves.

But in 1980, Don had to stop working because of a pulmonary ailment and arthritis. With four children still at home, Janet became the sole breadwinner. Three years later, the union's contract with Morrell expired and the company announced that it would close the plant unless workers accepted lower wages.

The union conceded, and the Erkses joined the ranks of the working poor. "It cost me $8,000 off my paycheck," Janet Erks said. "It was hard. The kids and I sat at home with no heat. There were times when I couldn't afford gas to get to work. If it hadn't been for good friends, we wouldn't have made it."

The family fought for nearly four years to win Don's disability payments, $560 a month from Social Security. Two years ago, the house in Lennox was paid off. But even before the latest strike, money was tight -- in part because of the couple's health problems.

Along with the 1983 wage concessions, the union accepted a reduction in health benefits. "We have to pay the first $900 a year on insurance, and it used to pick up everything," Janet said. "We've had a lot of medical expenses, with me a diabetic. I've got $6,000 in outstanding bills that I was trying to make payments on, and now I can't even do that."

Erks and her coworkers have been on strike since May, not over their own contract but in sympathy with striking workers at Sioux City, Iowa. United Brands now owns both plants, and the company has asked Sioux City workers to take a pay cut, to $7.75 from $9 an hour, as well as cuts in insurance and pension benefits.

Erks' local believes that if Sioux City workers are forced to concede, United Brands will ask Morrell workers to do the same.

Today, the Erkses live on Don's disability check, her $40-a-week strike benefit from the union, and the income from a part-time job that she spent four months searching for. "Nobody would hire a Morrell striker," she said. "They figured you'd just go back when the strike was over, and I can't blame them."

Janet also intends to return to Morrell. Her pension is at stake -- $15 a month for every year of service -- and she is at least a year shy of qualifying for it. "In the old days, you had to quit when you were having children," she said. "I have to make up those years."

In some ways, weathering the strike was easier for the Kratochvils than it has been for the Erkses, who have less experience at it. For the first 20 years that Janet Erks worked at Morrell, contracts were settled quickly. There were no strikes. Since United Brands bought the family-owned business about a decade ago, there have been three.

And the Erkses started in the hole because of a family tragedy two months before the strike began. Their eldest son, Scott, 30, serving with the Air Force in Spokane, Wash., had begged his parents to visit during an air show at the base in May. The Erkses declined; they couldn't afford it.

But they made the trip anyway, not to watch Scott fly but to bury him. He was killed in March when his plane crashed in a training maneuver, practicing for the show.

"We had to refinance the cars to raise the money to go to the funeral," Janet said. "We had to take two cars, with all the kids."

The tragedy clearly has taken its toll on Janet Erks, a determinedly cheerful woman whose laughter seems often on the verge of tears. Of the remaining six children, only 13-year-old Angela lives at home now. Two sons are working in Sioux Falls, three daughters have moved away -- to western South Dakota, to Michigan, to Montana.

"It used to be that families stayed together," she said. "We just thought, 'Well, I'll stay where my parents raised me.' Now our kids are all over, and we can't even afford to go see them. We have six grandchildren, and we see them maybe once every two years. We had never seen Scott's youngest, Samantha, and she was two years old."

Erks understands why her children have moved away. Entry-level wages for most jobs in Sioux Falls start at minimum wage and rarely get higher than $6 an hour. To stay in Sioux Falls is to accept membership in the ranks of the working poor.

"Things are so high, and wages are so low," she said. "How can you make it?"

The Erkses stay on and hope for the best. Janet Erks is hoping to retire when she qualifies for her Morrell pension, then take a new full-time job. It won't pay as well as the meatpacking plant, and the couple doesn't expect ever to see again the $50,000-a-year income they once had.

"I don't think it'll ever get better," Don Erks said. "There are too many conglomerates getting too big."

NEXT: Looking back from retirement