Organized labor is far from happy about a US Supreme Court decision to delay action on a challenge to the legality of limiting political-action committee (PAC) spending in the 1984 presidential campaign.
Although the way is now clear for unions to contribute more substantially to Walter Mondale's fight for the Democratic nomination and the election of a Democrat to the White House this fall, the lifting of legal barriers also enables business and other conservative PACs to spend millions of dollars to reelect President Reagan.
Labor will be outspent many times over. Its political-action reserves are limited, particularly after its spending during the primary and caucus campaigns. Gary Hart's unexpectedly strong showing has forced the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) to commit much more money to the primary campaign than expected.
Political-action committees are organizations dedicated to specific political goals, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee. They are financed by special-interest groups such as organized labor.
Until lower-court rulings overturned limits on spending, federal election law barred PACs from spending more than $1,000 in behalf of a presidential candidate who claims - and receives - federal funds. The lower-court rulings open the way to much heavier spending.
The Democratic Party and the Federal Election Commission immediately challenged the decisions that lifted the lid on contributions, and appealed to the US Supreme Court to hand down a decision in time to prevent limitless spending in this year's campaign.
The Supreme Court agreed to consider the appeal, but rejected the request to decide the case before its scheduled three-month recess in early July. A ruling is not expected until June or July 1985.
The delay leaves PACs free to spend heavily (by some estimates as much as $20 million) in the presidential campaign this year. A lion's share of the money will be spent to back President Reagan. Conservative political groups contributed nearly $14 million to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, and they are reported to have even more money available now.
One AFL-CIO political strategist says unions ''can't begin to match right-wing spending,'' but that ''other aid,'' including volunteer campaign services, will be intensified.
Ironically, says former COPE director Al Barkan, organized labor was a pioneer in the establishment of political-action committees. They were financed by voluntary contributions of a dollar or two per union member to ''educate'' labor voters and the electorate generally on critical issues in campaigns and on which candidates would favor labor's positions.
The labor efforts proved so successful, Mr. Barkan says, that business and other conservatives established similar PACs, which have been much more strongly financed.
Labor's PAC funds are frequently estimated in multimillions of dollars. The amounts are greatly exaggerated by critics of unions, who warn of Big Labor's political power. Labor's actual PAC funds are relatively small compared with those of the conservatives, but unions can mobilize tens of thousands of volunteer workers nationally to man telephone banks, mail or hand out election material, and otherwise help favored candidates.
Beyond that, AFL-CIO's COPE has what is probably the most effective political computer operation in the US, one the Democrats rely on in campaigning in every state.
This noncash help, not affected by federal contribution laws, goes far beyond the conservatives' possibilities and offsets a substantial part of the heavier funding of the largely pro-Republican and pro-Reagan PACs.