IT was something of a downer for American workers, as the Labor Day weekend approached, for the Reagan administration to reject shoe import curbs to protect the flagging United States shoe industry. This was the right economic policy decision at the moment, if one considers the longer aim of reducing government protection of industries, adjusting to a globalizing economy, and holding down consumer costs.
There is, however, another responsibility, shared by business, government, and individuals, to encourage and create frameworks for useful worker employment. Despite a long business expansion, US unemployment the past six months has been stuck at 7.3 percent. That's 8.5 million persons -- enough to line up single file from New York City to Los Angeles with only inches between them. Hardly a satisfactory statistical ``floor.''
Organized labor has taken its lumps. Fewer than 1 in 5 workers today carry a union card. Competition from abroad, a large pool of nonunion unemployed workers willing to take their jobs, contract concessions, an administration that set an early strike-breaking example with the air-traffic controllers union -- these have combined to mark organized labor's retreat in influence the past half dozen years. In 1979 there were 235 major strikes, in the first six months of this year just 18.
Politically speaking, however, this isn't the whole story. Republican congressmen and senators see that they could be vulnerable in next year's elections on the jobs issue. Democrats are pressing them as soft on competition from abroad. Republican leaders like Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, a shoe-producing state, and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a textile state, have become advocates of protectionist legislation to defend US jobs against imports. The stage is set for a veto war on protect ionism between the President and Congress. The President will have to endure heavy importuning by Republican leaders who will point out that his key leverage on Capitol Hill, Senate control, could be at stake. He will have to argue that protectionism attempts largely to control job erosion, rather than create jobs.
Work is dear to Americans -- the poor even more so than the non-poor. Three-fourths of the poor choose ``working hard'' over ``personal satisfaction and pleasure'' as important in their life, compared with two-thirds of the non-poor, a Los Angeles Times survey shows.
Whatever the ranks of organized labor, the citizenry's impulsion to be productive and useful will generate plenty of political grist in the months and years ahead.