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THIS LABOR DAY MARKS A CENTURY OF PROGRESS

Labor Day, primarily a union invention, is always an appropriate time to assess the state of organized labor. Such an assessment is especially in order now that the observance is passing a major milestone and is 100 years old.

In all candor, the union movement is not in particularly good health. Its membership constitutes less than 18 percent of the non-farm labor force, down from a peak of 34 percent in 1955.The future could easily hold more of the same as the American economy becomes increasingly automated, more dependent on high technology, and service-related firms keep making inroads into the manufacturing segment of free enterprise.

Despite this trend, the state of the American worker is exceptionally better in 1994 than it was in 1894, when President Grover Cleveland signed legislation establishing the first Monday in September as a national holiday.

Regardless of the declining unionism and increasing talk about the widening pay gap between rich and poor, the United States continues to be the land of opportunity, with an unemployment rate much lower than found in most European countries and a social mobility others admire.

There can be no denying the hardships caused by the downsizing of major corporations to meet foreign competition and the growing mismatch between unskilled workers and complex jobs. But the U.S. economy remains the most resilient in the industrial world.

Defining worker welfare in terms of union membership can be deceptive. Workers in a computerized service economy are less likely to join unions than workers in a steel mill, coal mine or auto plant. But the union movement is far from extinct. As Scripps Howard News Service notes, union membership increased last year after 14 years of decline and now totals 16.6 million. But the increase has been more in government than in private industry and may not last long if Washington gets serious about its efforts to reinvent government, mainly by streamlining and reducing it.

Figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 7 million of the 16.6 million Americans who belonged to labor unions last year worked for federal, state and local governments. Union members were only 11.2 percent of private employment, but they were 37.7 percent of public employment in 1993.

The nation's largest union, the National Education Association, comprises mainly schoolteachers. The teacher union could become a powerhouse of more than 3 million members if the NEA merges with the American Federation of Teachers as a result of talks now under way.

But then Labor Day has come to something quite different from what its founders had in mind a century ago. No longer is the emphasis on unions but on work. What an irony on a day when most workers stay home to celebrate.

Yet the fact remains that work is still far more important and ultimately more satisfying than the picnics and parades associated with Labor Day. It's work, after all, that provides structure and discipline to many lives that otherwise would lack such helps to self-development. It's through work that most of the service to others is rendered. It's through work that one can readily express love for others and for the crafts and professions in which one toils.

Likewise, it's hard but intelligent work that has made America both so prosperous and so free, a magnet drawing far more immigrants than this country can absorb from neighboring and distant lands alike.

Take a bow, workers. After a century of amazing progress, you certainly deserve the accolades - and the brief respite.