Unemployment will be a major issue in the 1980 presidential election. Political strategists in organized labor, blaming President Carter's economic policies, say that job worries of rank-and-file trade unionists could elect Ronald Reagan.
The political implications of higher unemployment in presidential and congressional elections are clear. Douglas Fraser, president of the United Automobile Workers, has warned Democrats that "each increase in unemployment increases the possibility of Ronald Reagan being elected president of our country."
Roughly 40 percent of the UAW's members in the auto industry are unemployed now and the figure is expected to rise during the summer.
The national unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly in July, from 7.8 percent in May to 7.7 percent, according to the LAbor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. But this decline after two months of joblessness increases was discounted by the BLS at a statistical fluke, the result of a seasonal adjustment in job figures. The unemployment situation has not improved.
Labor Secretary Ray Marshall conceded in Washington recently that the jobless rate may rise as high as 8.5 percent of the work force by early 1981. He said he would be "terribly surprised" if the figure reached the 9 percent level of the 1974-75 recession. Many private economists, including those employed in the labor movement, predict the figure will go higher.
AFL-CIO's top officers, Lane Kirkland and Thomas Donahue, have sharply criticized the Carter administration's economic policies and are pressing the Democrats to repudiate those that "foster unemployment . . . through a misguided effort to balance the budget" at a time of soaring unemployment.
Mr. Donahue, secretary-treasurer, backed by AFL-CIO department presidents, urged the Democratic platform committee to build a platform strongly based on job programs. The party, he said, "must spell out a program that will put America back to work."
The 1976 Democratic platform included an economic program for full employment and balanced growth, Mr. Donahue reminded the party committee. If the Democrats hope to "wear the mantle of the people's party" this fall, he said, the party will have to reaffirm its liberal commitments.
In 1976 organized labor, although not happy with the nomination of Jimmy Carter, spent millions of dollars helping to elect him. Now union support is considered critical to Mr. Carter's re-election.
Mr. Reagan has wooed union support, but his conservatism and past record on labor issues make him suspect to union politicians. While they talk glumly of there being "no real choice," they lean toward Mr. Carter.
An endorsement will be made after party conventions, when platforms can be compared. Labor is unlikely to decide to sit this election out: Worries about Mr. Reagan winning the presidency so far outweigh concerns about another term for President Carter.