WASHINGTON — Washington-- As Labor Day approaches, the ritual examinations of the state of the unions will proceed. Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, will be in the news, in the columns and on the talk shows.
Hard-boiled journalists will ask Mr. Kirkland about the decline of the labor movement -- isn't the unionized proportion of the work force down? Hasn't labor lost political clout -- isn't the Mexican trade treaty moving forward over labor's objection? Isn't the AFL-CIO out of touch with its membership -- why does it oppose Clarence Thomas and support a civil-rights bill that may likely yield quotas?
The questions are fair. But Mr. Kirkland is a man of conviction and eloquence. I have had occasion to hear his replies, and without spoiling the suspense, I will say this: He has tough, shrewd and pungent answers that should make you think, even if you end up disagreeing.
But oh, how I wish some tough reporter would ask another kind of question. Some softball like this: ''Mr. Kirkland, how did the American labor movement help bring peace and freedom to the world?'' (Note to interviewers: Some of the best questions are softballs.)
A pretty strong case can be made that the Cold War would not have ended in the speedy way it did had it not been for the actions of the American labor movement.
In December 1981, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski instituted martial law and declared illegal the Polish union Solidarity. (General Jaruzelski claimed that if Solidarity kept pushing for democracy, Soviet tanks would crush Poland.)
Solidarity activists did not agree, and did not go out of business. They went underground.
Over the next eight years, Solidarity survived, flourished and prevailed. The union published underground newspapers, distributed videocassettes, interrupted government radio programs with announcements that ''Solidarity lives.'' It opened international offices. It pushed for sanctions against the Polish government. Many of its activists were jailed.
During this time, the principal support for Solidarity, both financial and moral, came from the American trade union movement, often against the advice of experts and diplomats. The AFL-CIO campaigned for sanctions and sent printing presses, ink, newsprint, computers, fax machines -- and money -- into Poland.
The organization raised money from unions and union members in America. Its officers lobbied for additional U.S. government funds.
There were adventures galore. ''Yachtsmen,'' on rented boats flying Polish flags, landed supplies on Polish shores. Jury-rigged ''torpedoes,'' launched from outside the international maritime limits, augmented the flow.
By 1989, General Jaruzelski got the message. Solidarity was getting stronger. The government re-recognized Solidarity. Elections followed. The communists were dumped. The Soviet tanks did not roll. Hungary quickly followed the Polish model. So did East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The Berlin Wall came down. Suddenly,there was no empire left in the Evil Empire. Even the evil began dissipating.
When it was all over, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said, many times, that Solidarity could not have survived without the AFL-CIO.
Labor's role in support of Solidarity was not a one-of-a-kind act. Free labor has always been anti-communist. Mr. Kirkland -- and before him leaders like George Meany and William Green -- had fought off domestic communists seeking to control American unions. Internationally, for decades, U.S. labor backed free union movements on every continent.
This was more than just idealistic behavior; it was self-interested and parochial. Labor wants free unions abroad -- which means free societies abroad -- because in unfree societies with unfree unions, workers can't bargain collectively and don't get paid well.
More than any businessman, Mr. Kirkland knows there is a global market. He sees that if goods can be produced cheaply by unfree, unorganizable labor, American workers can lose jobs, wages, or both.
So labor lusts for free politics all over the world. Mr. Kirkland believes that political liberty bubbles up from the streets and the plants and the shops, not from diplomats in Foggy Bottom or Whitehall and not from corporate boardrooms. It's an interesting point.
Happy Labor Day.
American Enterprise Institute fellow Ben Wattenberg is author of ''The First Universal Nation,'' published by The Free Press.