THE FACT that Wal-Mart became the nation's largest corporate employer over the past year symbolizes much about the nation's work force this Labor Day.
Yes, the nation's unemployment rate hovers around 5 percent, a figure that approaches full employment; the economy continues to surge; welfare rolls are plummeting like never before, and the settlement of the United Parcel Service strike suggested that a company can be successful while providing reasonable wages and benefits to employees.
While workers have reason to feel encouraged about the state of the workplace, unrest lingers. Many employees are not sharing in the nation's prosperity, although many have bought pieces of corporate America through 401(k) and other pension plans.
In addition, job security is elusive, as workers try to adapt to -- or resist -- technological changes and corporate downsizing. Employees worry that the jobs of today are inferior to the jobs of yesteryear.
Perhaps workers' concerns about their future are best captured by Wal-Mart's ascension to the top of the list of American employers.
In the past, General Motors has been the nation's No. 1 employer. There, assembly-line workers earn high enough wages that they are solidly entrenched in the middle class. But as the economy continues its metamorphosis from manufacturing to services and information, traditional good-paying, labor-intensive jobs are less plentiful.
Meanwhile, there is work at Wal-Mart. The giant retailer employs 687,000 Americans. Yet there is little comparison between the pay of a Wal-Mart "associate" and a GM worker. Thirty percent of the giant retailer's positions are part-time, and the company spends considerably less than GM on benefits.
Organized labor, emboldened by the Teamsters' success in the UPS strike, hopes to capitalize on worker uneasiness. The AFL-CIO, under the aggressive leadership of President John J. Sweeney, last week launched a television advertising campaign intended to improve the public's image of unions. It is devoting 30 percent of its resources to organizing.
The union federation has its work cut out. Labor groups have lost favor over the years. Even the boost from the Teamsters' UPS settlement quickly evaporated amid allegations of election irregularities, renewing the old corruption concerns about that union.
Labor organizers have a lot of convincing to do before they win over workers, even those who feel forgotten in this booming economy.
Pub Date: 9/01/97