CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ken Hall, international secretary-treasurer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, believes today's society reflects conditions that existed 100 years ago.
"We are seeing income inequality we have not seen since early in the 20th century," Hall said. "We are coming to the point where it is the 'haves' and 'have-nots.' The middle class is being slowly, but surely, eroded. We see stagnating wages and poor working conditions," said Hall, also president of Teamsters Local 175 in South Charleston.
It was the early days of the 20th century when labor unions began to assert themselves in the American economic system. But today, in many ways, the labor movement is headed in the opposite direction.
"Today is the story of declining unions. We are no longer a basic-industry country. That is where the unions were really significant -- in coal, steel and auto industries," said Ronald L. Lewis, an emeritus professor of history at West Virginia University.
"Globalization of manufacturing has changed everything. When workers were able to organize and get higher pay, you could judge how important an individual's labor was," Lewis said. "Now, when computers govern the production process, how do you decide that?"
Steve Roberts, executive director of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, agreed with that assessment.
"What role will unions play as the American workforce becomes less production oriented and more high-tech oriented?" he asked. "It seems to me that their role is changing. Will they adapt quickly enough to the modern workforce?
In its latest annual report on union membership, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of a union declined from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012. In all, 14.4 million workers belonged to a union in 2012.
"In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.1 million union workers," the bureau reported.
But the decline in union membership started before then. Unionization topped 30 percent for 19 consecutive years between 1943 and 1961. The highest single rate was 35.5 percent in 1945.
According to the BLS' Current Employment Statistics program, national unionization rates for nonagricultural employees were 11.6 percent in 1930, 26.9 percent in 1940, 31.5 percent in 1950, 32.4 percent in 1960, 27.3 percent in 1970 and 21.9 percent in 1980.
The overall union participation numbers were buoyed because, according to the BLS, 35.9 percent of public-sector workers were union members in 2012 -- a rate more than five times higher than the 6.6 percent of private-sector workers who belonged to unions.
Gordon Simmons, a field organizer for the West Virginia Public Workers UE Local 70, based in Charleston, said, "Since the 1970s, organized labor in the United States has been in a big retreat.
"Jobs have been sent overseas and local shops turned non-union. With the decline of the labor movement, there has been a decline in the existence of the middle class. The gap between people who are very well off and everyone else has increased to an historic distance. There is no way you cannot connect that to organized labor."
For years, wages have not reflected increased productivity.
"Between 2000 and 2012, wages were flat or declined for the entire bottom 60 percent of the wage distribution, despite productivity growing by nearly 25 percent over this period," according to "A Decade of Flat Wages," a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz.
"The median worker saw an increase [in wages] of just 5 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite productivity growth of 74.5 percent," the report points out.
Labor's decline comes from a range of factors, including losses in manufacturing jobs and increased imports from low-wage countries like China and India.
The Alliance for American Manufacturing -- a coalition of the United Steelworkers of America and several steel companies, including U.S. Steel -- issued a report in 2012 about the impact of imports.
"Our manufacturing sector alone has lost 5.5 million jobs in just the last decade, with 2.4 million lost or displaced as a direct result of our massive trade deficit with China," the AAM report stated.
West Virginians have lost good-paying jobs in steel mills in the northern Panhandle, aluminum plants in Ravenswood and chemical plants in Kanawha Valley towns like Nitro.
Deborah Rudacille captured what happens in her 2011 book, "Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town."
"In little more than a generation, an industrial economy that enabled people without much formal education to create stable families and communities has become a technocratic one in which most of the nation's wealth -- in the form of both wages and investment -- flows inexorably to the best-educated, most affluent Americans."
Rudacille focuses on the once-prosperous Bethlehem Steel operations in Sparrows Point, Md., very similar to mills near Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown, Weirton and Wheeling.
"By 1985 the American steel industry was on the ropes," she wrote. "Jobs were cut, layoffs were made permanent and mills were closed."
Today, the Sparrows Point steel mill employs fewer than 3,000 workers, compared to 36,000 at its height. In Weirton, the steel mill once run by National Steel, has suffered the same plight.
Mark Glyptis, longtime local union president at the Weirton mill, said the Weirton steel mill employed 14,000 in 1975. It only employs 1,015 today, even after hiring 125 new workers in 2012.
In 2012, the U.S. produced 88.6 million tons of steel. China produced 716.5 million tons and Japan, 107.2 million tons.
The growth of restaurants and retail stores, where unions represent very few workers, also drains the percentage of union workers.
Some changes could be coming. On Thursday, workers in 50 cities at non-union fast-food restaurants -- including McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- walked off their jobs in an effort to get better wages.
"I came from the Upper Ohio Valley. When you didn't smell pollution and smoke from the mills, you knew times were tough," Lewis said. "Today we live in a service economy. I don't particularly like any of it. But it has happened. No longer can anyone who is willing to work hard and make money send his kids to college."