The 86th celebration of Labor Day was, for many veterans of the US union movement, as unexciting as organized labor has become in its maturity. In earlier years, Labor Day was the traditional occasion for parades to show worker solidarity, for rallies to mobilize workers for union organizing and bargaining militancy or oratory against employers, and for the start of vigorous labor political action.
There was little, if any, of that on Labor Day, 1980. And there were no indications that today's workers across the country would have welcomed a return to Labor Days past. The day set aside for labor since 1894 now is a part of the last extended-weekend holiday of the summer -- for most workers, a day of vacation with pay.
The differences showed up Monday in speeches and formal statements of many of the country's top labor spokesmen: They lacked bombast. Today's leaders were addressing a new generation of union members -- most of them better educated, more affluent, and perhaps more conservative than their predecessors.
Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, noted in Washington that this country "does not have a 'working class' any more than it has an official aristocracy. Workers in America are not second-class citizens or a special faction; they are part of every aspect of American life."
Hoping to shore up a political coalition of liberal groups, Mr. Donahue, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, and other major leaders stressed "political concerns" not only of workers, but also of other Americans. Their emphasis was on what they called "two very different versions of what America's goals should be and how we ought to try to reach them" -- a reference to the Democratic and Republican party platforms.
There was no enthusiastic outpouring of support for the Democratic presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, and only scattered criticism of Ronald Reagan, the Republican. Mr. Carter, however, will get the AFL-CIO's formal endorsement later this week.
One significant reference to the presidential contest came from Donahue, who called on Americans "to vote with common sense, not their frustrations." AFL-CIO political strategists are worried about the effects of a protest vote by workers against Carter this fall. Generally, labor leaders limited statements to somber , politically oriented assessments of the problems of inflation and unem" ployment along with warnings of a political and economic turn to the right.
Howard D. Samuel, president of AFL- CIO's Industrial Union Department, whose affiliated unions have suffered heavily from large layofts, said Labor Day "appears to find organized labor in a very long tunnel, with little light reaching us from the end."
Mr. Samuel, Robert Georgine, head of the powerful AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, and others blamed "a new conservatism" for many of labor's problems.
"It sometimes looks as if corporate America has captured both houses of Congress, parts of the administration, and major elements of the press and academia," Samuel said.
Mr. Georgine called for unions to strengthen themselves to defend "against those forces which are determined to eliminate organized labor . . . [We] must strive to thrive at a time enemies don't want unions to survive."
Such statements were mild in contrast to the frequent and angry denunciations of "anti-union" employers in the past. Donahue stressed that "good sense and wisdom is going to be needed more than ever to keep our balance" in this election. It is a time, he said, for a "sense of compromise, cooperation, and tolerance."