A top item on the agenda for the 1980's is whether American workers will invest their savings in progress or in "progress."

Pension funds of labor unions and other employe organizations are now the largest source of investment capital in America. According to economits J. Rifkin and R. Barber, pension funds own between 20 and 25 percent of the stock on the New York and American stock exchanges, 40 percent of all corporate bonds, and 20 percent of the country's financial securities, state and local bonds and federal treasury notes.

At present rates, all this will have a value of over $1.3 trillion in eight years. A trillion has 12 zeros.

The trouble is that hardly one zero of this money is invested in improving the living environment of the people who are saving it. Virtually none of these funds is invested in arresting and reversing the deterioration of our cities, in low- and middle-income housing, in parks and playgrounds, public schools, medical care, transportation, air and water.

The people who pay into the pension funds usually do not know and generally do not care how their money is invested as long as it yields good dividends. The funds are entrusted to investment experts whose only interest and mandate is to get the highest and most secure return. The only restriction on some labor union investments is that they may not support non-union enterprises.

But in effect investments of ten help to put union workers out of their jobs and to turn cities into slums.

Cleveland, for example, has suffered a net loss of 16,202 Dun and Bradstreet rated firms between 1969 and 1974. Along with them went 230,000 jobs. The city continues to lose about 1,700 jobs every year. Most firms move to the Sunbelt, where labor and land for expansion are cheaper, where taxes are lower, and where executives can get a better tan.

Yet, practically all the pension funds of Cleveland labor union members are invested in the Sunbelt and/or overseas. None of the funds, or virtually none, is invested in ventures that would keep Cleveland firms in Cleveland, improve their technology and productivity and in other ways help the recovery of the stricken city.

According to research by Agnes Hoskin, a member of Cleveland's Catholic Community Action Commission, the investment of the $13-million pension fund of Cleveland's Plumbers' Local 55 is entirely in the hands of the National City Bank of Cleveland and its financial advisers. The 1,300 members of the union show no interest in the portfolio.

The Plumbers' money, Hoskin found, is invested in U.S. Treasury notes, Small Business Administration projects, Federal Home Loan, Ohio Edison and other securities not specifically related to Cleveland.

It is much the same with the United Steel Workers Local 1005. A representative of the United Automobile Workers Local 1005 explained that pension-fund investments are made by the union international headquarters in Detroit and that locals have no voice in the matter.

Ohio Public Employees Retirement Systems, PERS, covers 289,000 employes and has over $3 billion in assets. "While Ohio struggles to find money to invest in its own towns and cities, more than 90 percent of PERS money is invested outside the state," says Hoskin.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), chairing a subcommittee hearing on investment policies last fall, was told by several witnesses that most pension fund investment counselors tend toward some 300 "blue chip" corporations, and that most of the money is flowing into southern "right-to-work" states, out-of-state utilities and anti-union operations.

Rifkin and Barber say in their book "The North Will Rise Again: Pensions, Politics and Power in the 980s," that, first, federal tax and spending policies transferred the wealth of the Northeast and Midwest to the industrializing Sunbelt states. Then private capital -- the banks and corporations -- began to redline the entire "graybelt" region from Chicago to Boston. Finally, people's savings, in the form of pension funds, "the most powerful pool of private capital that exists anywhere in the world," began the ruin of the old industrial strongholds.

Religious groups were the first to discover that a fair return on investments was not incompatible with moral principles, job protection, and environmental sanity. Late in the 1960s, almost all Protestant denominations and many Catholic religious communities established committees to evaluate their investment programs.

One such organization is the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which advises 150 Roman Catholic orders and 14 Protestant groups. In addition to advise on how these religious groups can invest wisely, Iccr provides information on company policies in regard to military contracts, relations with South Africa, foreign investments, the treatment of women and racial minorities, environment and ecology and consumer relations.

The organization also assures anxious investment managers that these considerations need not mean a lower financial return -- that, in fact, social and fiscal responsibility may well complement each other.

Labor leaders, however, still seem unconvinced. Samuel Gompers, in the early days of the American labor movement, felt that retirement funds were all wrong because they increase the workers' dependence on the boss.

Today's union officers seem to think that only the highest possible profit may be considered, and that any other investment considerations are somehow subversive of American democracy and free enterprise.

Australian construction workers have recently refused to build high rise buildings and shopping centers that they felt to be detrimental to livability.

American labor, I am afraid, has not yet caught on to its responsibility toward America's future. There is no policy that requires the managers of pension funds to look at what impact their investment decisions have on long-range prosperity and employment, the vitality of our cities, housing, historic preservation and the development of alternate energy systems.

Imagine if, rather than Proposition 13, these $1.3 trillion were invested in beauty, livability and social justice.