Greek immigrant Stavros Katolis © Microsoft

Greek immigrant Stavros Katolis

Stavros Katolis, 75, spent more time traveling to the U.S. from Greece than he did looking for work once he got here. That was in 1965.

After an 11-day steamship trip across the Atlantic, 28-year-old Katolis was fetched from the dock in New York City by his brother, who was already living on Long Island. One week later, the brother took Katolis to his new job as a furrier, secured through family connections.

"That day was my birthday, and I'm never going to forget: That day was the day I got a job," Katolis recalled. "It's a great country."

Forty-seven years later, Katolis is retired and comfortably ensconced in his home in the upper-middle-class community of Port Jefferson Village, N.Y. He is separated from his significant other -- and lonely -- but he says he's happy to be able to get by on his small savings and Social Security payments of about $1,250 a month.

With help from the New York State School Tax Relief Program, which reduces his property taxes from $6,000 to $2,500 a year, he is able to manage. ("It's a big, big thing," he said. "Because that $6,000 is hard.")

"I never complain, believe me" said Katolis, who was raised in Greece and is now a U.S. citizen.

Katolis said that while he always worked hard, he benefited from something that's harder for young Americans, let alone immigrants, to come by today: a union job from the get-go, which offered job security, good pay and benefits.

"It used to be a big job, because I was in a union," he said. "In the '70s and '80s, for a man to make $500 a week and have all the benefits, it was a good job.

"Today's different, not only here, but in every country. But years back, it was much easier to get a job, to live like a human being."

In 1965, 31% of workers in the private sector were members of unions, which historically elevated wages across an industry. In 2011, just 7% of private-sector workers belonged to unions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Today, Katolis said, it's more difficult for unskilled American workers to make a living wage, in part because of illegal immigrants who undercut pay. He wishes the labor laws were more strongly enforced.

"I know people, they don't have papers, they come here. I don't know how they come here and work," Katolis said. "And the other thing, the bosses abuse the people. They take less money and they take work from Americans. Nobody check those places."

Katolis receives a union pension of just $62.34 a month. After 43 years of work, his pension was supposed to be between $800 and $1,000, but after a corruption scandal decades ago, the pension funds evaporated, he said.

"Don't laugh," Katolis said, when revealing his pension amount. Nonetheless, he continues to tell people: "The union was good to me. I love union. Anyone who work for the union is good."

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