The AFL-CIO will celebrate the centennial of the American labor movement this week during a convention that could be critical for the 102-union federation and its 15 million members.
The observance will open what Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, and other top union leaders call the second century of a movement that began on Nov. 15, 1881, when 107 union representatives meeting in Pittsburgh formed the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions, an organization that evolved into the American Federation of Labor in 1886.
Labor historians question 1881 as the start of this country's labor movement: Unions existed for decades before that. However, observance of this as the centennial year of labor gives its leaders an opportunity to rally the country's workers at a time of mounting problems by pointing to labor's dramatic survival through 100 years of crises.
The AFL-CIO and its unions entered the biennial convention in midtown New York Nov. 16 with serious concerns about the need for changes to restore organized labor's representation in the nation's work force (down to 20.9 percent from 25.2 percent in 1968), its political and legislative clout, and, most important, the loyalty and support of working men and women.
''We've got to restore labor solidarity,'' an AFL-CIO vice-president said on the eve of the convention. Another, William P. Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists said, ''We have a big and rather unwieldy institution. We've got to get together to get it moving.''
For a start, the AFL-CIO's Executive Council met in advance of the convention to recommend a dues increase that would bring in some $14 million over the next two years to help finance expanded organizing and to help support legislative and political activities.
The council also urged AFL-CIO unions to promote the checkoff of voluntary contributions by members to union political funds.
The federation's Committee on Political Education also held preconvention meetings at which AFL-CIO concerns over Reagan's economic and social programs and his attitude toward unions generally erupted into some of the sharpest criticism of a president and his policies heard from labor in decades.
Referring to Ronald Reagan's ''brutal punishment'' of air traffic controllers who struck and were fired, Victor Gotbaum, head of New York City's largest public employee local, said ''not even General Eisenhower or Richard Nixon did anything like that.''
The angry criticism of President Reagan's economic policies, blamed by labor for today's 8 percent unemployment rate, and his handling of the controllers strike will be heard through the week-long convention. Speakers will include former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale and Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy , labor favorites who are considered 1984 presidential aspirants.
In a break with tradition, neither the President nor Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan was invited. Said a labor official, ''We are inviting our friends, not our foes.''
Mr. Kirkland, who succeeded George Meany two years ago, is assured of reelection and promises aggressive moves in the future toward making AFL-CIO ''a federation for today.''