The first Labor Day parade, held back in 1882, disappointed union organizers. Marchers showed up, but not in the large numbers expected. In hindsight, one can understand why. The nation's laboring class - then as now - was but a small part of its total work force, which included farmers, tradespeople, shop workers, professionals. American workers, unlike their more ideological European counterparts, looked upon themselves as individuals rather than as part of a proletarian mass movement.
Undaunted, proponents of a day celebrating labor persuaded a number of states to declare a legal holiday. In 1894, Congress, in the midst of a bitter national strike and boycott involving the Pullman railroad company, finally rushed through legislation designating a day celebrating America's workers. Yet, from the 1890s to the present decade, Labor Day has largely remained the same: a day for an occasional speech or parade but, most important, a time of end-of-summer relaxation for everyone - union member or not.
As Americans prepare to celebrate Labor Day 1983, they have much to be thankful for. Economic recovery is at last under way. Unemployment is falling, down to 9.5 percent in July compared to 10 percent in June. Inflation is also down. And the recent sizzling growth in the economy appears to be leveling off, which holds out the possibility of a sustained recovery and perhaps even a slight reduction in interest rates.
Yet, as millions of working Americans holiday this weekend, they should not forget the plight of those 11 million or so who remain without jobs. As a result of deep-seated changes in the economy, many unemployed persons will not be able to return to their former positions. The increasing use of computers and robots in such traditional manufacturing industries as autos, steel, and rubber is ending thousands of jobs held by middle-class workers - once the mainstay of the American labor movement. At the same time the growth of a more technologically sophisticated economy means that, while new jobs will be opening up for highly trained professionals, most new jobs for the vast majority of workers will be in service, clerical, or other white-collar fields. Thus a two-tier economy could develop consisting of affluent professionals on one hand and poorer people, minorities, and women in lower-level service jobs on the other.
Americans, who have always proven resilient to change, must summon up the enterprise and inventiveness to meet these challenges. The task is to ensure that the nation's work force is productively used and that every individual has the opportunity to exercise his or her God-given capacity for useful activity. This suggests some minimum practical steps:
* The federal government and industry need to develop extensive job training programs, matching workers to actual jobs.
* Tax laws should be further revised to encourage savings instead of consumption - through, for instance, a new value added tax - so that more resources are available for research and plant construction.
* Cooperation between management and labor is absolutely essential in such areas as job flexibility (assignments), reasonable wage and benefit levels, and introduction of better manufacturing processes.
Perhaps it is each American's sense of a shared national purpose that most needs to be recognized this Labor Day weekend. Samuel Gompers, one of America's most revered labor leaders, may have said it best: ''I do not value the labor movement only for its ability to give higher wages, better clothes, and better homes - its ultimate goal is to be found in the progressively evolving life possibilities of those who work.''