NEW YORK - On Monday I went to the Labor Day parade. It was a damp, grey day, the rain was a thin, mean drizzle, and the only spectators were the desultory shoppers and tourists who happened to be passing.

Up Fifth Avenue from 46th Street to Central Park this straggle of a parade went by, a sad metaphor for the unions, which now represent 16 per cent of American labour. Last week I saw a strike on television: the United Auto Workers were striking at General Motors (the union lost), and it looked like an animated tableau from another era.

At the head of the parade were the mayor and the governor and the political candidates; New York is still a union town and a Democratic city, and the politicians have to pander to organised labour; everyone wore a Clinton/Gore badge.

Labor Day has been around for 110 years. I stood in the rain as the parade passed by with the banners that called up all that history - 'Black and White Unite]'; 'Solidarity For Ever]' - and thought about Labor Day and politics.

Labor Day has traditionally marked summer's end and the official start of presidential campaigns. In the last couple of weeks, while Dan Quayle did the Family Thing, the AFL-CIO (America's TUC) officially endorsed Bill Clinton. It has always endorsed Democrats.

Since the Thirties, when FDR and the New Deal passed laws that gave the unions teeth, the Democratic Party and organised labour have been locked in an eternal two-step.

Historically, the Republicans have been anti-labour. In busting the 1981 air controllers' strike, Ronald Reagan delivered a near-fatal blow to organised labour. So it was pretty ironic to find George Bush at the Republican Convention posing as Harry Truman. Excuse me? people said. Wasn't Harry Truman a Democrat during the high-flying days of organised labour? The Harry mantle did not fit. (For one thing, a reporter noted, unlike George, Harry did not note that we 'are in deep doo-doo'.)

On the other hand, Bill Clinton is hardly labour's honey. As governor, he runs Arkansas as a right-to-work state (no closed shops allowed). Still, who else is there? Along the parade route marchers hoisted Clinton/Gore placards and hoped for better times.

But there was no whisper of old union songs. The marching bands played 'America the Beautiful' or a tune from a television commercial for union-made goods. There was no shouting, no confrontation, only a weary persistence, as if the unions were worn out.

Nurses, teachers and musicians marched. Italians and Hispanics, Asians and African Americans carried banners and babies. Elderly women, black and white, held hands, their earrings bobbling, recalling the old days when tens of thousands marched and Fifth Avenue was jammed with cheering crowds.

As it trailed up Fifth Avenue, this was mainstream urban America, as it is represented by what remains of the unions. In fact, it showed what unions have always been about in America: better conditions, better pay. They are rarely about ideology. In the Reagan years blue-collar workers deserted the Democratic Party because it seemed to have given itself over to fancy-talking intellectuals. You can't eat ideology.

It's been noted that unions have suffered, that their spirit and culture have been degraded, because of the decline in the idea of the 'working class'. After a dozen years of Reagan-Bush there is barely a 'worker' left in America. Even Clinton the Democrat, in his opportunistic rhetoric, always playing to the 'new' middle class, 'no longer chooses ordinary words to distinguish a successful accountant from a black mother-of-three who spends all day slicing up chickens in one of the poultry-processing plants that dot the state of Arkansas', according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of Virginia historian.

Monday's was a sad little sketch of a parade. Still, I am sentimental about Labor Day. I was raised on unions. I went to a school where Pete Seeger, the left-wing folk singer, taught music, and my mother organised nurses in her hospital. (During the Depression she marched, in winter, in a Persian lamb coat. From the windows, guys would shout: 'Join the workers? Lady, in a Persian lamb, you should live so long.' I was not a coal-miner's daughter.)

I know that for years some unions were enormously corrupt. I know that by the Fifties, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters were almost synonymous with organised crime. I know all that.

In a sense, I don't care. The unions were a kind of thread that tied the country together. They were about a particular culture, an optimistic, hopeful, liberal culture, about camaraderie and bowling leagues and community and Fourth of July picnics and Labor Day parades.

I'd rather risk the corruption than lose the unions. About 36 million people are living below the poverty line. But to blame the unions has become standard propaganda in hard times, almost as crude as it was back in 1892, when Andrew Carnegie sent his armed Pinkerton thugs into his steelworks in Pittsburgh to break a strike.

OK, by the lights of George Bush and Dan Quayle, I qualify as a card- carrying, bleeding-heart liberal. More worrying is that, according to my once like-minded friends, my wimpy liberal views make me a fool driven by compassion and guilt.

I am moved, none the less, by the likes of Lucy Larcom. In 1889, this mill- worker in Lowell, Massachusetts, wrote: 'I defied the machinery to make me its slave.' Nothing much is made in Lowell these days. The town where America's Industrial Revolution was born is now a theme park.