AS though the streets outside were not obstacle enough, a horrendous racket fills the halls at a high school in Harlem. Students strain to hear through the din. The students here are not the problem. They are inner-city achievers, who aspire to become doctors and lawyers. One said recently he wanted to win a Nobel Prize. The problem is repair work on the 65-year-old building. If the work were done in the afternoon, then classes could proceed in peace. But union contracts would make that too expensive.
So the students suffer the intrusion - in this, the A. Phillip Randolph High School, named after the great black union leader, who did so much to advance the fortunes of black working men and women.
American labor unions haven't done much of late to increase their stature in the public mind. In the early part of this century, organized labor stood practically alone in tempering the raw acquisitiveness of the industrial management of the era. Unions fought for workplace safety and social security and a host of other protections that Americans now take for granted.
Even today, a beleaguered labor movement will go to bat for legislation that helps consumers and the poor. Business lobbies, by contrast, rarely lift a finger unless there's a buck in it for themselves.
It is precisely this proud history - the tradition of concern for the other guy - that makes the state of some unions today so unfortunate. This is especially so in New York City.
In August, for example, the city enlisted prison inmates to paint over graffiti on the Long Island Expressway. It costs more to keep a person in prison than at Harvard University, so getting some constructive work out of these inmates would seem to make good sense. With roads crumbling and water mains bursting all over New York, there's plenty of work to go around.
Members of the painter's union, however, picketed the graffiti cleanup for three hours, tying up rush hour traffic. ``They should be paid the prevailing $18 an hour [wage],'' a union spokesman said.
Then last month, the state Health Department was about to distribute an AIDS prevention video to every high school in the state. Three recording artists had donated 10-second segments of popular songs. The union, however, demanded union scale for every producer and backup musician involved - $80.23 an hour and $160.46 an hour respectively. The tapes didn't go out.
Even Spike Lee, the popular young moviemaker, has had problems along this line. When Mr. Lee was just out of film school, Mother Jones magazine reports, he wanted to make a film about a bicycle messenger. Having only $40,000, he asked the Screen Actors Guild for permission to make the film at experimental rates. The guild wouldn't agree, and the film was never made.
To be sure, it's easy to point the finger at unions, for the same reason it's easy to vent one's ire at store clerks and bus drivers. They are visible, the men and women on the front lines. In the greed department, the painters union and actors guild pale before the takeover sharks on Wall Street who are leveraging America into bankruptcy.
But it's no excuse for unions to say the bosses do it too. Unions are supposed to be better; that's their claim to public support.
Instead of picketing the graffiti cleanup for example, the painters could have joined in, on their own time. Then they could call upon the leveraged buy-out firms to send some partners over to help. Instead of stopping a public health video, the union could have called upon radio and TV stations to air more such public service spots.
Instead of subjecting school kids to a racket, union members should gladly work a later shift. Then they could call upon construction companies and material suppliers to take a smaller profit as well.
Such actions would do more for the labor movement than a year of image ads on TV. They would also provide something this acquisitive country needs right now: a good dose of shame. Who better to claim the high ground, than those who walk in the footsteps of leaders like Walter Reuther and A. Phillip Randolph? If only they would.