LENOX >> Seeing Verizon union members on a picket line in Pittsfield and other East Coast states since Wednesday serves as a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era, when workers in manufacturing, service and a wide range of industries and professions could raise families on solid middle-class salaries and hourly wages.

Benefits were plentiful, including 100 percent health insurance coverage, defined pensions and job security.

Now only 11 percent of American workers are unionized — 35 percent of public sector employees but only about 6 percent in the private sector. The peak year was 1954, when more than one in three American employees were unionized. By 1983, two years after President Reagan busted the air traffic controllers union by firing 11,000 striking workers, organized labor could claim only one out of five employees nationwide.

In 2014, according to federal government statistics, the median weekly income for union workers was $973, compared to $763 for others. In addition, benefits, job security and safer, higher-quality working conditions are still considered basics for organized labor.

Of course, some unions killed the golden goose as they became much too powerful. Featherbedding and corruption were rampant, especially on the waterfront and among Teamsters, whose leadership was infiltrated by organized crime in the 1950s. Strikes were too frequent, demands could be unreasonable, and I watched as four of New York City's seven daily newspapers folded in the '60s and early '70s, mostly because of unsustainable labor contracts.

Shift in technology


The current Verizon strike, involving 36,000 wired-line employees, reflects the gradual decline in home phone service in favor of the giant company's wireless division, whose workers are non-union and earn considerably less.

Contract negotiations got nowhere in eight months. According to the union, Verizon is seeking to freeze pensions, increase the company's reliance on outsourcing to offshore call centers and hiring of temporary, low-paid contract workers, cutting health benefits and making it easier to reduce the workforce.

In full-page Boston Globe ads headlined "What's there to strike about?" the company points out that skilled technicians earn wages and benefits worth $130,000 a year, on average, in the New York area. Verizon says it offered a 6.5 percent pay hike over three years, "high-quality health care benefits, exceptional retirement benefits and numerous perks" such as $8,000 in tuition assistance, $10,000 in adoption assistance and "generous vacation and holiday schedules."

Despite nearly $18 billion in profits last year, Verizon argues that "union leaders need to move out of the past and recognize that it is no longer the Ma Bell-era of princess phones and phone booths."

"Digital realities" require the company to "make changes in legacy constraints in our contracts," Verizon management contends.

There you have it, a prime example of the driving forces behind income inequality that threatens our way of life as technology and, let's admit it, corporate greed driven by Wall Street, fuel anxiety and fear among working classes.

Most private sector employees, bumping along with minimal or non-existent pay increases year after year, are frankly envious of the advantages enjoyed by the more fortunate, though fewer, members of organized labor.

'Take it or leave it'

Even with unemployment at a 15-year low here in Massachusetts, job insecurity among employees allows many companies to take advantage with "take it or leave it" pay and benefits packages.

"I didn't want to go on strike, none of us did, but at the same time, enough's enough. Not just for Verizon but everywhere," said Bryan Phillips, 38, of Pembroke, a technician for 18 years. As he told the Boston Globe, "You don't see anyone [in other companies] go on strike, because they're all afraid they're going to lose their jobs. But if we don't fight for these jobs, these jobs won't be here."

The striking unions say that the company wants to transfer workers to remote locations away from their families for months on end. A University of Massachusetts Amherst labor-studies professor, Tom Juravitch, has described Verizon's work practices as "positively 19th century."

Exploitation of fearful workers is far from uncommon elsewhere. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, along with Massachusetts AG Maura Healey and AGs in six other states, are questioning the "on-call" scheduling practices of national retailers requiring employees on certain shifts to phone in an hour or two before they report to work to find whether or not they're expected to show up.

"Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on employees," according to a letter from the attorneys general to the retailers. "Without the security of a definite work schedule, workers who must be 'on call' have difficulty making reliable child care and elder-care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing an education, and in general experience higher incidences of adverse health effects, overall stress, and strain on family life than workers who enjoy the stability of knowing their schedules reasonably in advance."

Schneiderman raised the same issue last year, leading companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, J.Crew, Urban Outfitters, Pier 1 Imports, and the parent company of Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret) to end their on-call policies.

No wonder the presidential campaign is fraught with shrill (at best) and outrageous (at worst) promises by the "outsider," anti-establishment candidates of both parties.

Meanwhile, good luck to the Verizon strikers. Regrettably, it would take a miracle for their cause to win out.

Contact Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com.