In 1984 George A. Morrison, now being advised by counsel but desperately in need of a public relations firm, earned $323,378 in his job as a construction worker. He reportedly clocked regular and overtime pay for more than 24 hours of work in 221 of 332 working days. He was paid $11,373 for a week he spent in Acapulco. Forget everything you've heard about the wages of sin. With the right union, they're precisely $155.40 an hour for a 40-hour week.

Morrison works in the New York City construction industry, where he has been designated by his union as "master mechanic" in charge of operating engineers. As such, he is theoretically on call 24 hours a day, even when on vacation in Acapulco, although given the nature of the union involved, that theoretical call to Morrison had better not come collect. New York unions do not accept charges of any kind.

Once again, New York has given us a tale about wretched excess. Just as Bernhard Goetz carried things a bit too far, so too has Morrison. There is just no defending someone who gets the wages of a dope peddler for lying under the broiling Acapulco sun while back in New York other construction workers are risking injury for a whole lot less. Their only advantage over Morrison is that they can drink the local water.

Yet from the union movement itself there comes not a word of censure. You would think that Samuel Gompers organized and Walter Reuther had his nose bloodied so that a handful of unions and a handful of their chosen members could live off the work of others. You would think that the whole idea of unionism is to figure out a way where some workers could, like some employers, rip off the system.

Morrison is sort of an epic example of this sort of thing, but otherwise he is no exception. For too long now, too many unions have been in the business of either creating or protecting featherbedding and, in the process, treating their own industries and the public with contempt. Only the leaders of organized labor seem not to have noticed.

Not too long ago, this same pose of studied nonchalance cost social welfare programs a good measure of public support. Time and time again when a welfare cheater was caught, government officials explained that it was more efficient to countenance some cheating than to try to eradicate it. That made some economic sense. But it made no sense at all when it came to public relations.

Americans hate cheaters -- and to hell with how much it costs to catch them. Disregarding that sentiment cost social welfare programs more than they could afford in what they needed most -- public support.

The same sort of thing is happening to the union movement -- and for good reason. It hardly matters that featherbedding and racketeering are the exception. What matters is that they seem to be the exception that proves the rule -- that, at the very least, get lots of publicity. People such as Morrison reinforce what we all either know about unions or think we know -- musicians who are paid not to play, longshoremen who never see the docks, drivers who sit for hours in their trucks because their job is not to unload.

To many Americans, ethical or financial corruption of some kind seems to be what unionism is all about, and that may explain why unions keep losing members. In the manufacturing sector alone, unions lost 1.4 million members between 1980 and 1984, while at the same time, 700,000 jobs were being added to the work force. All in all, the percentage of union workers in manufacturing declined from 32.2 to 26.5 over the last four years.

You hardly need statistics to know that American unionism has the reputation of a sleazeball -- some of it deserved. Yet when it is revealed that some construction workers are paid while not on the job, union leaders in neither Washington nor New York yelled and screamed that this sort of thing would not be tolerated. We got no ringing denunciations, no reminders that this is not why men once died at Republic Steel. Instead, Big Labor, which can wax indignant on almost any subject, lost its big mouth.

George Morrison is a perversion of the American labor movement. What he represents should not be tolerated and, at the very least, should be denounced. That the leadership of organized labor has done neither proves that it has at least one thing in common with him. It, too, is asleep on the job.