Rock Island, Ill. — ''If we don't elect candidates who believe in a strong industrial base for this country - and who support this bill - we can kiss the automobile industry goodbye.''
The occasion is a labor-sponsored Saturday morning march against unemployment. At issue, Bill Steward, assistant director of United Automobile Workers (UAW) District 4, tells the crowd, is which national political candidates support pending Capitol Hill legislation requiring those selling cars in volume in this country to build a portion of them here.
That domestic auto content bill, labeled by free traders as the worst protectionist legislation to come down the pike in many a year, could yet come up for a vote on Capitol Hill during the November-December lame duck session. The number of House sponsors is an impressive 224. The bill has less support in the Senate, however, and, if passed, is expected to be vetoed by the President.
But the American labor movement - and the UAW in particular - continues to view its passage as critically important to the industrial worker's future. Some 250,000 UAW members are currently out of work. Over the summer the UAW, conducting its first national petition drive ever, gathered 100,000 citizen signatures at airports around the country in support of the bill. UAW president Douglas Fraser, who insists the measure is ''modest,'' says union members support the bill more strongly than any other legislation in UAW history.
''Unless this bill passes there won't be any industrial jobs - we'll all be service technicians, taking care of people's gardens and their children,'' Mr. Stewart tells the Rock Island crowd.
This Quad Cities area, straddling the Iowa-Illinois border, is the home base for a number of auto suppliers and agriculture machinery manufacturers. The parking stalls beside the UAW hall here stipulate: ''American made autos only.''
As the election nears, labor's focus shifts to getting more candidates elected who support the bill. Gene Casraiss of the UAW legislative office in Washington explains that about 60 of those Congressmen now supporting the legislation are Republicans. He says that their names, as well as those of traditional Democratic supporters, are being circulated as worthy of labor support.
''We're completely nonpartisan on this issue,'' he explains. ''We need all the help we can get.''
To increase the pressure on Congress and rally public opinion to their cause, UAW members are continuing their petition drive for signatures in October at county fairs, airports, and shopping centers with an eye to presenting the list to US Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee in November. ''We want to maintain the momentum,'' insists Steve Protulis, coordinator of the UAW campaign for domestic content legislation.
The legislation, which would affect not only Japanese but those American car manufacturers who intend to produce and assemble more of their vehicles overseas , requires, at its maximum, that those selling 900,000 or more cars a year in this country rely on American parts and labor for 90 percent of the content.
Opponents of the bill, including US Special Trade Representative William E. Brock, argue that the measure would raise prices, hurt consumers, and trigger possible retaliation that could affect the United States even more adversely. Proponents, including the Consumer Federation of America and the AFL-CIO, insist the dangers are being overdramatized.
Some analysts say they think the best possible result for the US could come in the form of a compromise extracted from foreign car manufacturers in the face of the legislation threat. Japan's voluntarily imposed limits on auto shipments to this country could conceivably be renewed when they come up for review next spring.
''It's absolutely true that we've been everybody's sucker - we're expected to be the benevolent leader of the Western world and everybody's growth market,'' comments David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. ''Frankly I think the best thing would be for Congress to pass the bill. That would put the President in a position of considerable power for making some rapid headway in achieving concessions. We've been faced with a series of trade inequities, and we need some kind of tool to make some progress.''
''We supported free trade before we were in such deep trouble,'' says the UAW's Bill Stewart. ''But we realize there isn't any such thing. Trade is a two-way street and it has to be fair.''