THERE ISN'T much doubt that American labor unions are suffering these days. You wonder why? Here's a textbook example of a union failing to see the forest for the trees, brought to you by the folks at Local 25 of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees, AFL-CIO.

For many years, Local 25 has had an interesting clause in its citywide contract with Washington's major hotels. The clause requires the hotels to provide each union cook with three bottles of beer during each shift, to be drunk during that shift.

Now, three beers in eight hours is a fairly stiff belt of alcohol. It isn't too tough to imagine how well a cook might do his job at the end of his shift after 36 ounces of brew. If your sunnyside ups have ever arrived sunnyside down, or your french fries came disguised as cauliflower, the beer might well have been the reason.

The beer clause was ripe for a test, and it got one last June. The head chef at the Capital Hilton decided that his kitchen would operate more efficiently if beer were not being drunk on the premises. So he took it upon himself to substitute three bottles of near beer (it's nonalcoholic) for each cook's daily stipend of The Real Thing.

The cooks screamed bloody murder. You would have thought they'd been asked to give up their first-born sons. Naturally, the screaming was heard at Local 25, which filed a grievance. And unsurprisingly, since the language in the citywide contract was as clear as could be, the union won.

But there's winning graciously and there's winning foolishly. Local 25 decided to win foolishly by rubbing it in.

One night in March, Executive Secretary-Treasurer Ron Richardson called the Capital Hilton kitchen and asked if Real Thing was being provided to his members, as the arbitrator had ordered. Told no, he went out and bought a case of Budweiser. Then he triumphantly carried it into the Hilton kitchen and passed out its contents.

That was bad enough. Worse was what followed in Local 25's April newsletter.

A 400-word article describes the "especially important" union victory in glowing terms. Five cooks are pictured in front-page photos, each with a smile, each holding a can of Bud. WALTER, THIS ONE'S FOR YOU, BUD, reads a taunting headline, aimed at the Capital Hilton chief chef who started the whole dispute.

"The cooks drink the beer on the job," explained Richardson. "They sweat it out as fast as they drink it. Obviously, we don't force them to drink it. It has been done for 30 or 40 years!"

Which doesn't make it right, Brother Richardson. All it means is that Local 25 is good at keeping benefits it once negotiated. But I know good and well that no other union directly encourages alcohol consumption on the job, and I'll bet Richardson knows it, too.

I would agree that the chief chef at the Hilton handled this in the wrong way. If either labor or management has a beef, take it through the grievance process. That's why the process is there.

But why is a union gloating over the fact that its members pound Budweiser while they're working? Why is a union that knows it has alcoholism problems among its members making free beer available to them? Why is a union increasing the risk of injury to its members from a sharp knife or a hot frying pan?

But don't take it from me, Local 25. Take it from David Oughton, executive director of the Washington Area Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, who had this to say:

"What is it in the kitchen that requires the three beers? There is no practical reason. You can give the cooks water or salt tablets or breaks if it's hot. All beer does is make you sweat more.

"If you can justify giving them beer during the job, you can justify driving while drinking, or anything else . . . . It means taking a needless risk when there are enough hazards out there already."

If Local 25 wants to give its cooks a present, it will move to drop the free-beers language from the next citywide contract. Beer has its place. The kitchen isn't it.

Good advice from Syd Kasper of Silver Spring to hot-weather zoo-goers:

"Going, get off at the Cleveland Park Metro stop. Coming home, board at the Woodley Park-Zoo stop. It's downhill all the way."

More good advice from a reader in Georgetown, on the ever-compelling subject of protecting yourself from incompetent D.C. cabdrivers.

My reader says that before she gets into a cab, she checks to be sure the driver is displaying his license and has a manifest sheet beside him. If the driver has only one of these "musts," or neither, my reader doesn't get in.

Charles Letcher says ducks really know how to live. They're forever saying, "Put it on my bill."