Labor Secretary Raymond F. Donovan's first meeting with the AFL-CIO's top leaders was cordial, but its timing was unfortunate. Arranged routinely weeks earlier, the get-together with the federation's executive council in Bal Harbour, Fla., Feb. 20 took place just two days after President Reagan's televised economic message to the nation. Secretary Donovan, a New Jersey construction executive, found himself on the spot before a labor body that had unanimously condemned Mr. Reagan's budget and tax proposals.
The secretary of labor, as a spokesman for the administration, personally appealed to the AFL-CIO to give the President's program a chance to work.
There are sharp differences of opinion about what happened next in the closed meeting. Secretary Donovan told the press afterward that there was "a mixed feeling" about the Reagan program. He said, "Many stood up and said, "Let's give the President a chance. Let's not pick this apart. Give them an opportunity to make this work.'" Donovan said that, in his personal opinion, about half of the council felt that way.
But Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL- CIO, later told reporters jokingly that he must not have been at the same meeting as Donovan. He said the encouraging remarks about the Reagan program ". . . didn't happen while I was there, and I didn't leave the room." Others in the executive council meeting agreed with Mr. Kirkland that there were no such expressions of support.
The different interpretations could have resulted from a misunderstanding: Secretary Donovan was defending the Reagan administration's whole program before the council -- what he described as a four-part program in which the budget and tax policies were only two essential parts. Labor's opposition was focused on those two elements; unions are in general agreement on the others. In effect, organized labor probably does back 50 percent of the entire program.
Despite the disagreement, the meeting enabled the executive council to size up the new labor secretary.Kirkland, who called President Eisenhower's labor secretary, Jim Mitchell, "the best Republican labor secretary ever," said he "hopes" Donovan will turn out to be "another Mitchell -- time will tell. We should be prepared to give him every chance. We have an interest in seeing that he carries out his job as effectively as possible."