APPORTIONING basic rights -- and responsibilities -- among labor, management and government is no easy task. If there are any doubts about that, just ask the delegates to the convention of the AFL-CIO, meeting this week in southern California. The American labor movement must revitalize the concept of organized labor in a society that is increasingly mobile, gearing itself more to service industries than to manufacturing, and more inclined to view itself politically as ``independent'' -- and thus not part of the Democratic Party political base that for so many years has characterized labor.
The numbers explain labor's concern about its future: Membership in labor unions and employee associations declined to about 19 percent of the work force at the beginning of this year, compared with 24 percent back in 1979.
Still, many of the objectives long associated with labor remain pertinent to today's society. Unlike European labor movements, the American movement has been an essentially conservative force. It has by and large rejected Marxist or socialist goals for power-sharing within the government. Although endorsing candidates and having in recent years a special relationship with the Democratic Party, it has rejected the notion of setting up its own political party, as is the case in much of Western Euro pe. Its focus has been on wages and benefits -- the betterment of the workplace. Internationally, it has been stoutly anticommunist.
Labor's special role is still important. Innovative ways of representing new workers must be sought. One interesting proposal involves signing on ``associate members'' who, though not formally in a union, can still share many of the health and other benefits the union provides. Strong opposition to such proposals is still evident in many unions, however.
Granted, there are broad differences between unions. Some, auto and steel, for example, continue to be high-wage unions. Others are more hardscrabble, getting whatever benefits they can. But many unions clearly need to put their own houses in order. Cronyism and corruption, where they exist, have no place. Greater flexibility is required in negotiating contracts. More unions need to emulate the example of auto workers at Chrysler several years ago, when they willingly gave up wage and benefit levels t o help save their company -- an investment to be restored by this month's new contract.
In the social-political arena, labor also needs to show greater flexibility. It was a mistake, for example, for big labor to have sided with Walter Mondale so early on in the 1984 presidential campaign. And labor needs to take another look at racism within its own ranks that would deliberately exclude minorities.
In fairness, much of this could be said about other institutions in America besides labor. Organized labor has had a long and useful history in the US. Its challenge now is to ensure that it is not caught on the wrong side of the general good.