CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Quick, name a union leader.
This is the 130th anniversary of the first Labor Day parade -- Sept. 5, 1882 -- so there's a good chance Bob King, of the United Auto Workers; Leo Gerard, of the United Steelworkers; Cecil Roberts, of the United Mine Workers; and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will be out and about.
But unless you are connected by geography or work, you probably are unfamiliar with those men, because unions and labor issues have disappeared from most Americans' radar screens, as well as from regular news coverage.
In the heyday of unions -- 1940s into the 1970s -- labor leaders such as John L. Lewis, David McDonald, Walter Reuther and George Meany were household names, regular visitors to the White House and frequent guests on network news shows.
Those earlier leaders had it easy compared to today. They vied for a bigger piece of a growing economic pie. Jobs were increasing, and foreign competition was not yet a threat. Unions had clout.
Not today. Union membership was 11.8 percent at the end of 2011, its lowest rate in 70 years. The rate among 18- to 24-year-old workers was in single digits. Unions' political influence has been lessened by that shrinking membership and by laws restricting expenditures.
Thus, even with a Democratic administration, White House lists show more visits by financial lobbyists than by representatives of unions. Banks received bailouts with no restrictions imposed, but the auto industry bailout was closely monitored, with the administration supporting $14-per-hour pay for entry-level jobs, less than half what it had been, and forcing changes in GM's management.
Caterpillar is imposing a six-year freeze on wages and pensions on its work force, despite record profits, huge executive bonuses, and a 60 percent pay increase for its CEO. Public employee unions too are feeling the heat. In Wisconsin, they lost the right to collective bargaining, and the Democratic governor in New York is calling for cuts in public employees' pensions.