Union officials try to regroup labor to buck GOP tide

Lane Kirkland and Thomas R. Donahue, the AFL-CIO's two top officers, are devoting almost a month to an exhausting mission that is taking them into every region of the country in search of a greater commitment to the labor movement from workers.

Accompanied by key members of the federation's Washington staff, the labor body's president and secretary-treasurer participated in three-day meetings in Philadelphia the first week in March and in Boston last week. They have five more regional meetings scheduled.

Their goal is to strengthen AFL-CIO internally, largely by building up state and city federations. These "carry a heavy burden in terms of the political process," according to Mr. Kirkland, but are handicapped because too many AFL-CIO local unions remain outside the central bodies.

There are three reasons for the meetings:

* The AFL-CIO seeks more unity at state and city federation levels in preparation for a determined battle against those parts of the Reagan administration programs that labor opposes as a serious threat to "50 years of social legislation."

The AFL-CIO wants to mibilize a massive labor campaign by mail and personal contact to persuade members of Congress to vote down or substantially modify presidential proposals.

If a showdown comes, it wants support in every part of the country for a massive "march on Washington" to demonstrate opposition to President Reagan's economic and social proposals.

* The AFL-CIO hopes to unify political efforts at state and local levels in time for the 1982 congressional election to stave off further GOP gains.

* Looking ahead to 1984, the AFL-CIO envisions greater involvement in national politics, including the endorsement of a presidential candidate in state primaries. It must have the strong backing of state and city federations to make this succeed.

There are other objectives.

One is to try to overcome charges -- from Reagan among others -- that the AFL-CIO is out of touch with labor's rank and file. Staff members explain fully the AFL-CIO's position on all key issues, and the regional debate and comments are taped for later study by the federation's leadership.

Kirkland also wants to strengthen his position as the federation's president. He is traveling as no other federation president has to become better known personally and to express his views in an organization long-accustomed to the strongly centralized leadership of the late George Meany.

In Philadelphia and Boston, Kirkland attacked Reagan's economic policies as "high risk gambles."

He said, to cheers, "The President does not have a mandate for monetarism or the meat ax. We are not a country of guinea pigs who can be expended in the interests of proving unproved economic hypotheses."

Referring to waterfront labor probes, Kirkland said that the federation does not condone crime or corruption in unions and will do whatever it can "that has not been preempted by law" to ferret out wrongs. However, he said that the AFL-CIO does not intend to assume "the powers of a police force nor does it want to become a vigilante force in the union movement."

Kirkland's regional meetings and his easy accessability apparently paid off.

One official of a NEw JErsey union said Kirkland achieved "an identity with the rank and file that he never had before."

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