WHEN GEORGE MEANY spoke of improving the lives of American workers, he included all of them. He didn't limit his purposes to the skilled craftsmen among whom his own career began. He reached far beyond the immediate interests of the labor movement. In the 24 years of Mr. Meany's presidency, the AFL-CIO maintained a broad and generous definition of public interest expressed in its support -- always, vigorous, frequently crucial -- for the volumes of social legislation that most Americans now take for granted.

While active and unwavering labor support, the first of the modern civil rights acts in 1957 would never have been enacted; Congress was bitterly divided and the Eisenhower White House was, at best, tepid in its endorsement. Sustaining support for civil rights was not always an easy thing for the AFL-CIO to do. The principle was far from unanimously accepted within the union's own ranks. Mr. Meany's unequivocal influence in those years was a memorable example of moral leadership.

He was one of the labor officals who recognized early the nature of the Communist Party and fought off its attempts to capture unions. In the 1950s, he moved the AFL-CIO into a fiercely anti-communist position on all issues of foreign policy. But he understood equally well the nature of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's anti-communist campaign, and kept his distance from it.

Under Mr. Meany, the AFL-CIO carried on a continuous political campaign to make the process of earning a living safer, healthier and more humane. While the protection against the economic burdens of unemployment and illness are not perfect, they are a great deal better than they would have been without the last 25 years of labor lobbying. Within the past generation, the ancient fear of destitution has been vastly diminished in this country. As a contribution to the country's welfare, that is equivalent to the eradication of a widespread and disfiguring disease. Mr. Meany's part in that accomplishment was notable.

He was a man who knew what he wanted, and was remarkably successful at getting it.When he retired last November, he observed that he had been given "more than one man's share of happiness and rewards." Throughout his life he stood consistently for one idea of social equity and, by the time of his death on Thursday evening, he had actually seen much of it built into the daily life of this country.