"Our opponents attempted to isolate us, to cut us off from the main body of the American people. No slander was too base, no appeal to prejudice too bigoted, no tactic too unprincipled for them to employ. . . . They failed because we did not pursue a narrow or selfish course. Our program was not a program for labor alone."

Union movement legend Sidney Hillman offered those triumphant words after organized labor's battle on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1944 reelection campaign. "Nobody knows better than I do how much you contributed to its success," FDR wrote Hillman. You could say Big Labor was born in 1944.

And expired when? This week suggests that if the unions aren't what they were in their heyday--Big Labor sounds antique--they still count for something. If they didn't, why did Vice President Gore fight so fiercely for the AFL-CIO's endorsement at its Los Angeles convention? And why did his rival, former senator Bill Bradley, fight so hard to block it? If we are a long way from Hillman's hope that "Labor Will Rule" (as Steven Fraser's book on Hillman is called), the unions matter, especially in Democratic politics.

A skeptic might see Gore's eagerness for labor's embrace as a sign of weakness, not strength. With his poll ratings dropping, Gore needed some victory, somewhere. A labor endorsement, his lieutenants reasoned, would break the cycle of bad news and provide his campaign with troops for primary battles that look to be tougher than Gore anticipated.

True enough. But comparisons between Gore's situation today and former vice president Walter Mondale's 1984 endorsement by labor--the last time the federation gave such an early nod--are strained.

For one thing, Mondale won the AFL-CIO's endorsement without a real contest. His main opponent, former Colorado senator Gary Hart, used the union label against Mondale. The front-runner, Hart said, was the candidate of special interests. The special interest tag stuck to Mondale right through the fall campaign against Ronald Reagan.

This time Bradley worked the unions hard, bolstered by Will Robinson, a top political aide with excellent ties to the movement. Bradley shows no signs of bashing labor, and John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president, returned the favor by praising Bradley's record even while orchestrating the Gore endorsement.

Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, says labor intends to urge a vote for Gore by contrasting him with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, not with Bradley.

The difference between labor's electoral positions in 1984 and in 2000 reflects a paradox: Unions are both weaker and stronger than they were a decade and a half ago.

In the new economy, labor faces huge hurdles, as a candid report by the federation's research department shows. The study finds that the fastest growing metropolitan areas--Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Phoenix--tend to be the least unionized. Old labor bastions, such as Chicago and New York, have had lower rates of growth. The fastest growing sectors of the economy--among them, hotels, finance, retail and child care--are areas of low unionization. And high tech looks less promising for labor than auto plants did 60 years ago.

The two trends in labor's favor are organizing and politics. Unions are putting more resources into signing up new workers. They won recent victories among health care workers in California and textile workers in North Carolina.

And labor was far more successful in the late 1990s than in the mid-1980s in getting union families to vote for labor's candidates on Election Day. You could say the unions studied at the feet of the Christian Coalition. Their campaign materials are less likely than in the past to shout, "Labor Says Vote for X!" Now the unions are big on "voter guides" that contrast the stands of candidates on worker rights issues. The AFL-CIO, says Rosenthal, finds that members prefer information to commands from on high.

That makes labor's campaign for Gore tricky. The unions have no reason to alienate Bradley by commanding votes against him. Labor's most successful campaigns in recent years (on behalf of a higher minimum wage, for example) were organized around issues as much as around candidates. These efforts, the minimum wage battle notably, were of concern to workers who don't belong to unions--"not a program for labor alone," Hillman would say.

Gore will get real help from individual unions. But for the movement as a whole, issues will rule. Gore won't have as much baggage from the unions as Mondale did. He may not have as much muscle, either.