AT the end of the last century, Americans in the labor force commonly worked 48 to 60 hours, often six days a week. There was no job security, no overtime pay, no retirement, no vacation, no paid holiday. Wages were miserable, working conditions worse. The minimum wage did not exist.
At that time, there were no laws against child labor or unsafe working conditions. In mines, factories, and sweatshops, if a worker survived an on-the-job injury it frequently meant the end of his working life and a trip to the poorhouse. There was no workers' compensation program. There was no law assuring workers the right to representation. Even then, the news media questioned the ''relevance'' of the labor movement, although workers did not.
Now, at the end of the 20th century, there are forces at work trying to bring us back to that time. We are in the midst of what Labor Secretary Robert Reich properly describes as an all-out war against workers. And labor's ''relevance,'' although still questioned by the news media, has never been more obvious.
In this century, the labor movement has grown beyond its initial reach. From its roots among skilled trades workers, labor has expanded to embrace public workers, professionals, women, minorities, immigrants, athletes, journalists. It includes blue, white, and pink collars. The solidarity that developed from epic battles in mines, mills, and factories forged an alliance known as the AFL-CIO.
Along the way, we helped enact laws that assert and protect the basic right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively and to work free of hazards. It was labor's righteous indignation that was the moral force behind universal public education and prohibitions against child labor. Labor also provided the vigor to enact Social Security, Medicare, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
In the myopic jargon of today's politics, these programs are lumped together as ''entitlements.'' In the fashion of bean counters everywhere, the focus is on the costs of these programs while their value is virtually overlooked.
But without universal public education, America would be a nation of illiterates. Without Social Security and Medicare, all but a privileged few elderly might struggle to survive when they can no longer work. Without national standards for job safety, child labor, minimum wages, and hours, our nation could return to the tyranny of workplaces dominated by cruelty and driven by greed. The value of these programs extends far beyond any balance sheet.
Yet, as this century of progress comes to an end, we find ourselves struggling not to expand on this foundation of national values, but to defend it. Hidden under a veneer of some very polished rhetoric, every aspect of the Republicans' so-called ''contract'' with themselves has, at its core, the objective of undermining, eroding, or demolishing the foundation of labor's agenda.
From the fundamental right to bargain collectively through free and independent trade unions to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the eight-hour day and 40-hour work week; from Medicare and Social Security to job safety and employment standards; from affirmative action to education aid - the purpose of this so-called ''contract'' is to throw the US back into the darker era of our past.
This defensive struggle also distracts attention from vital needs shared universally by working people in America. Our task extends beyond simply holding on to the gains of this century; we must attack the problems that disrupt the lives of union members today. Real wages have stagnated for the past 25 years; downsizing has made insecurity a constant companion on the job; unconscionable increases in the cost of health care add to that insecurity. Despite our progress, we should consider these facts:
r Fewer workers are covered by pensions than they were 25 years ago.
r Fewer workers have health insurance coverage than 25 years ago.
r All workers are working longer hours than 25 years ago.
r Fewer workers have the benefit of a union contract than 25 years ago.
Is the labor movement resilient enough to defeat the attacks directed against it and to effectively take on the problems afflicting America's workers? It can and it must.
Acknowledging our problems is no indictment on our past or current leadership. The unity within the AFL-CIO is a tribute to the stewardship of Lane Kirkland. When he took office, he said his goal would be to encourage mergers and bring the largest unions outside of the federation back into the fold.
Now we are poised to elect new and dynamic leadership for the federation. The debate that is accompanying that choice focuses not on what to do, but on how to do it.
That debate should not obscure the essential facts of life about working in America in 1995. If you work for a living, you need a union. If you are already represented by a union, you need a stronger one. If you want to strengthen America, then work with your union toward that goal.