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UNIONISTS TO REGROUP ON LABOR DAY

Most Americans consider Labor Day a last chance for summer frolicking, a day for picnics and the beach.

But for the nation's trade unionists, it's at least as much a day for assessment, reflection and regrouping.On Labor Day 1994, unions may have some things to celebrate, but it has been, at best, a difficult and trying year.

It's been "a year like all years," said Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO. "One of struggle, progress in some respects, setbacks in others."

The good news for unions is that the decline in union membership has reversed. In 1993, union membership rolls swelled by 200,000, the first increase in 14 years. Unions are raising record amounts of money to donate to political candidates.

At the same time, they have suffered some embarrassing defeats in Washington.

The unions began 1994 still smarting from a spectacular loss last fall on the North American Free Trade Agreement at the hands of a president they helped propel into office. They helped draft legislation to strengthen job safety laws, but never got it to the floor of either house of Congress. They did get to the Senate floor a House-passed bill that would have outlawed the replacement of striking workers. But it was killed in a Republican-led filibuster.

They launched a major lobbying campaign in favor of President Clinton's health-care plan, but Congress recessed last month without acting on any of several proposals and may not pass any health reform this year.

"It's been a mixed bag," acknowledged Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

On the eve of Labor Day, Labor Secretary Robert Reich said the administration isn't giving up on striker-replacement legislation. "We'll come back, we'll try again," he said on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."

And Reich contended unions are making progress on issues where their sentiments are shared by Americans at large.

"Organized labor's goals - that is, more jobs and better jobs and health care and safer working conditions - are exactly the same goals as working Americans (have) generally, and they have been getting those goals."

With Clinton in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, labor leaders had hoped to reverse the series of defeats they suffered under Presidents Reagan and Bush. They have fared better, but the highly visible losses have left some questioning whether unions are losing their clout.

"I think the labor movement is weaker in some respects because 15 or 20 years ago it was, for some people, the focal point in their life," McEntee said.

"But now you've got issues that cover a wide spectrum and groups that didn't have that much voice are now involved in politics," he said. "Now the union is only one institution taken into consideration when a member of that union makes a political decision."

Still, McEntee and others discount the notion that unions are losing their effectiveness.

"It's not labor losing its clout on the Hill, it's people losing their clout," said Arthur Coia, president of the Laborers International Union of North America.

He insisted that while unions have lost some battles, they still are effective lobbyists.