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LABOR DAY NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE

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Labor Day wasn't what it used to be in many communities around the nation. There were fewer observances and smaller parades.

There was no mystery to this. Social and economic conditions have changed, and the old motivations no longer are there. New issues, attitudes and people have replaced the old. The old hymns aren't sung with the same fervor.It didn't happen because workers today are content or that there are no big issues. There may even be more, but the approaches have changed - fewer threats and more arbitration, negotiation, reason, compromise.

Organized labor has less power now, partly because it won much of what it fought for and graduated members to higher economic levels. Skills are more common than brawn. Jobs aren't as codified and stagnant.

So much is in transition. Better educated and able to save, workers are far more mobile. Educational opportunities allow the ambitious to change jobs or grow further in their old occupations. Career changes are more common.

The job marketplace is evolving. Old-line companies with long-time employees and old-fashioned skills are overtaken by upstarts with new ideas, products and technologies. Plants close, move, downsize.

About 30 percent of all jobs in 1989 disappeared by the end of 1993, according to Cognetics Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., firm that tracks employment trends. Two-thirds of the losses were due to plant or office closings.

While many closings resulted from the same old causes, mainly mismanagement, an unknown number were a consequence of new technologies and products, and new markets, too.

Much has been made of the so-called global economy, but all it means is that companies are competing not just within their own borders but within the borders of other countries. That kind of competition demands efficiencies.

Productivity is a key to understanding much of what is happening. It is the explanation for plant closings and layoffs and new plants and moves to other areas. If you can't produce efficiently, someone else in the world will.

It is the explanation for a common misunderstanding. Manufacturing has not declined in America. It contributes today as great a percent of gross domestic product as it did two decades ago. But it employs fewer workers.

Labor leaders understand this, in some instances more so than management. It explains some of labor's willingness to compromise on demands, and it also explains the tendency to have more say in how companies are run.

It also explains labor's interest in retraining for the growing number of skilled jobs in the newer technologies, now practiced even by old, traditional employers. And those new skills further blur the management-labor distinction.

Truck driver-computer operators are common, for example, and high-tech knowledge is a required skill in factory jobs where grimy hands and faces once were proof of hard work. Decision-making has descended to the plant floor.

Pity those without skills. Without skills, workers today are probably worse off than before, destined to occupy service jobs, many in retailing and food handling, paying relatively little.

Millions of workers find themselves in that situation, leaving them with no recourse but the least desirable one - multiple jobs.

This isn't the same option as exercised by more affluent families, in which high expectations require multiple earners and multiple jobs. Those without skills work two jobs for survival and still can't make the dollars add up.

Great problems continue to exist in the labor market and new ones will appear. But time and change have drained away many of the old-timers who honored labor and made the day what it was.