LENOX

Organized labor appears to be on the verge of extinction, at least in the private sector.

That's the takeaway from a fascinating national study released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics this past week with a headline-grabber: Last year, union membership was at its lowest level, as a percentage of the workforce, since 1916! Only 11.3 percent of workers had a union card, a sharp decline from the previous year.

The only foothold labor unions retain is in the public sector -- teachers, public safety employees, municipal, state and federal workers -- where just under 36 percent were represented. In the private sector, a tiny 6.6 percent of the workforce was unionized. In both areas, organized labor is losing members at an accelerating pace.

It's no coincidence, of course, that most of the employes still getting raises in our Age of Austerity are in unions -- 2 percent a year seems to be the top rate, barely matching inflation, especially considering sharp rises in food and fuel costs during the past year.

With unemployment still unacceptably high, and four people applying for every opening, on average, companies manage to keep salaries and wages stagnant. In the service sector, hours are declining and benefits are either minimal or nonexistent. We all know friends and neighbors here in the Berkshires holding down two or even three part-time jobs in order to pay the rent or mortgage, put food on the table, gas in the car and cover other basic expenses.

When I entered the workforce in the late 1960s, nearly half of all employees were unionized -- a majority in the public sector and one out of three in private industry.

But organized labor was riddled with corruption and abuse of power at the top, and too many companies were saddled with work rules that made no sense and cut productivity to ridiculously low levels.

As a member of several different unions during the first 15 years of my New York media career, I was blessed with salaries that enabled a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, even in Manhattan. My first news job out of college came with a princely weekly paycheck of $155, big bucks for 1967.

However, prolonged, bitter strikes had cut the number of daily newspapers in New York from seven to three during a four-year stretch. Many of my colleagues were hard-working, for sure, but others took advantage of union rules to put in the minimum effort. Some who were barely competent retained their jobs year after year with no incentive for improvement.

Much of that has changed, and rightly so. But the erosion of unions in private business has enabled some employers to fire at will, combine positions and create onerous working conditions. Job insecurity is rampant; too many people are paying a high price for the lack of protection from exploitation (certain big-box chains come to mind). Family life is jeopardized as hours on the job increase and some parents, tethered to electronic devices, face even more homework than their high-schoolers.

Here in Massachusetts, 14.4 percent of workers were union members last year, according to the government study -- a bit higher than the national average but well below New York state, which holds the top spot with 23.2 percent of the work force unionized. North Carolina is at the bottom, with only 2.9 percent in unions.

According to Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, "These numbers are very discouraging for labor unions. It's time for unions to stop being clever about excuses for why membership is declining, and it's time to figure out how to devise appeals to the workers out there.

"Workers should be looking to unions because of job insecurity and stagnant wages," he told The New York Times. "But they're not."

One final, eye-opening statistic from the government report: Full-time union workers had median annual earnings of $49,000 last year -- nonunion workers in similar positions earned $38,600.

Organized labor is under siege in states like Wisconsin and Indiana. Major employers are opening plants in the South, where unions are nearly non-existent. The service sector is already beholden to at-will or at-whim employers.

The time is approaching when the few surviving unions will hold little if any sway. For many people, they won't be missed. But the squeeze on over-stressed, underpaid workers is likely to grow ever tighter, at great cost to those who still believe in the American Dream.

To contact Clarence Fanto, email cfanto@yahoo.com.