Warning that the United States shoe industry could be clobbered in the next few years by a flood of imports, the AFL-CIO and two shoemakers' unions are joining employers in an appeal to the Reagan administration for emergency help.
The appeal is the latest in a spreading protectionist campaign by unions that once supported free-trade policies. It warns that unless the government's International Trade Commission (ITC) orders temporary import quotas on nonrubber shoes, what was once a major and stable source of employment for Americans will be in jeopardy.
Testifying before an ITC hearing in Washington, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland said the ITC's decision on the petition ''could mean life or death to an entire industry.''
The country cannot afford to lose another manufacturing industry, Mr. Kirkland said. The damage already done represents ''an American tragedy,'' he added, noting that seven of every 10 pairs of new shoes sold in this country are now foreign-made.
Many factories have been shut down and others face closings, unions and employers told the ITC.
The industry that employed more than 250,000 in the 1960s is now down to 131, 000 working and 37,000 unemployed. Many of the jobless may never get their jobs back, and thousands of those now employed could lose jobs unless imports are limited quickly under a quota system, they argued.
Shoe-state senators and state and local officials also are petitioning for at least five years of import quotas that would limit imports to 50 percent of the US market. Last year the volume of imports rose to nearly two-thirds of all US shoe sales.
Most shoe dealers and store chains oppose limits on imports, pointing out that the shoe industry is making a profit and that limiting imports would raise the cost of leather or synthetic shoes to a public already buffeted by inflation.
In 1977, when imports had risen to 47 percent of the US market, the government provided some relief through four-year marketing agreements. In effect, these agreements set quotas on imports from Taiwan and Korea. Three years ago President Reagan rejected an ITC recommendation for a continuation of the import curbs.
The Food & Commercial Workers and Clothing & Textile Workers, two AFL-CIO unions that represent half of all nonrubber shoeworkers, charge that President Reagan ''decided to throw the shoe industry to the wolves'' because he did not want to appear ''protectionist'' in policies. His decision, they say, has cost 20,000 shoe-industry jobs since 1981.
The unions say that, in contrast to the US open door to shoe imports, Canada and Australia have global quotas, Japan restricts imports of leather shoes, Brazil limits imports through a 170 percent tariff, and the United Kingdom and France have agreements with Taiwan and Korea that limit exports of shoes.
Organized labor says the United States must maintain a diversified industrial base - and regain lost ground - in steel, auto, textile, electronics, shoe, and other industries if it is to continue strong and supply employment to millions who have lost jobs.
Protectionism (government restrictions or limits on imports) is proving to be a major political issue this year.
Owen Bieber, president of the United Auto Workers and a supporter of Walter F. Mondale, recently spoke out against an announcement that the US will not seek renewal of Japan's ''voluntary restraint'' on auto exports because of improved conditions in the US industry. Mr. Bieber, who also urged quotas at a worldwide meeting of auto union leaders in Tokyo, said curbs on Japanese auto exports to the US are ''absolutely necessary'' to prevent a further erosion of auto employment in this country.
Meanwhile, the United Steelworkers and the steel industry are pressing Congress to adopt a Fair Trade in Steel Act that would set steel import quotas. The steel union says imports have cost more than 200,000 jobs in the US and have forced the closing of many plants.