Like many other holidays, the importance of Labor Day has tended to erode in the estimation of many Americans, who seem to have lost sight of its original meaning.

The event generally is seen simply as a vacation from work, an excuse for a long weekend. The meaning of the observance has dwindled away until the history and struggles of organized labor hold little relevance for most of today's America. Yet the significance of Labor Day still has much to say to this generation.Born out of the often brutal struggles for the right to organize into labor unions and to be treated fairly, Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. Much of what those early workers fought for has become embedded in law and the national consciousness - along with the taking-for-granted that occurs in the wake of successful change in society.

But in recent decades, a rapidly different world, a global economy, the rise of multinational companies, and the disappearance of economic borders have caused the decline of U.S. labor unions until their membership is less than 20 percent of the non-agricultural labor force.

American heavy industry such as steel, autos, rubber, mining, factory work - the historic power base of unions - has eroded dramatically. Jobs have fled abroad to foreign producers. The United States is now the world's biggest importer and a debtor nation.

As the name declares, Labor Day honors labor - the dignity and satisfaction and worth of hard work. While much work no longer involves the hard physical labor of earlier generations, the value of sustained effort to produce something worthwhile is still the same for both the individual and society.

The fact that Americans are not doing as well in the world economy may be due in part to too much attention being paid to the financial rewards of work and not enough to the value of the work itself.

Starting with children, too many young Americans spend too much time in front of the television set instead of learning to work. They spend fewer hours in school doing less demanding work than youngsters in any other industrial nation. And their test scores show it.

Job applicants often are more concerned with what a position pays, what the benefits are, how many work breaks are offered and what the vacation and holiday schedule might be than they are with how they can contribute to a company's success.

Too much attention is paid to "rights" and far too little to responsibilities.

Too many Americans build their lives around quitting time, from one weekend to another, from vacation to vacation, and with one eye on retirement. Work for the joy and satisfaction of working is all too often lacking. Such people often wonder what is missing in their lives.

Labor Day offers a chance to think about the value of work, of doing a good job, of offering a full day's effort for a day's pay, of enjoying the inner satisfaction that comes on the weary heels of knowing that one has done his best from start to finish.

If Americans could learn to once again enthrone labor as a sought-after virtue instead of something from which to escape, the United States would have little to fear from economic competition at the hands of the Japanese or anyone else.