WHEN GEORGE MEANY became an apprentice plumber in New York in 1910, wages for working people averaged about 25 cents an hour. If you take into account the eightfold inflation since then, it was the equivalent of $2 today. When Mr. Meany became head of the ALF-CIO in 1955, the average hourly wage was something over $4 in today's terms. Currently, as he retires, it is $6.20. As important as the cash in hand, wages today -- unlike those in 1910 -- also carry a long and valuable fringe of health and retirement benefits.

You can't say that Mr. Meany did it all by himself. But the labor unions together, standing for the principle of fair distribution of a repidly growing prosperity, in turn augmented the growth of that prosperity.

To understand the Meany view of the world, people in the unions say, you have to realize that he never ceased to be the plumber from the Bronx. He never liked European socialism and the idea that workers ought to become management. Nor was he much interested in theories of co-determination that put union officials on companies' boards of directors. He liked a clear and frank adversary relationship, in which union and management sat on opposite sides of the table and arm-wrestled over the definition of a fair wage. It suited him and, you'd have to add, it suited most of the people who followed him.

Rigidly honest, he was adamant in throwing unions like the Teamsters out of the AFL-CIO. But it's also true that he never got along well with the United Auto Workers, the most imaginative and skillfully led of the big industrial unions. Mr. Meany conceived his public responsibilities generously and was a steady force for civil-rights legislation, even at a cost of some dissension among his own membership. A sturdy patriot, he saw to it that his unions contributed strongly to the revival of non-communist labor movements in Western Europe after World War II. But virtues and vices get tangled up together, and under the Meany leadership some of those unions also came to be used subsequently by the CIA in ways that did neither them nor the country much good.

Mr. Meany led the labor movement to the peak of its success -- and perhaps a little beyond.Its members are immensely prosperous by any previous decade's standard, but they are feeling the erosions of inflation and the pressures of worldwide competition. Much of the movement's agenda of social reform seems to have been achieved. Its membership, as a proportion of the labor force, has been declining for some time.

One side of the argument says that labor unions belonged to a special stage of economic development that is now passing -- and taking the unions with it. The other side holds that unions will survive, but only by changing as fast as a labor force that is increasingly well educated, professional and employed in the services rather than in traditional manufacturing. Mr. Meany leaves this argument to his successors.