Labor pleased with `wait-and-see' plan. By not endorsing a Democratic candidate in the primaries, AFL-CIO leaders hope to conserve their resources for a strong push in the general election.

Labor's endorsement strategy for the 1988 presidential campaign is quickly running out of time. Instead of rallying behind a single Democrat early on as they originally planned, labor leaders now appear willing to wait for the party convention this summer to anoint a nominee.

This tact would mean diminished political activity in the short run, but it would allow unions to conserve their resources for an all-out push in the general election.

Union officials, meeting near Miami this week for the midwinter meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, are not unhappy with this trade-off.

``Labor right now is in a win-win situation,'' says Joan Baggett, political director of the 100,000-member International Union of Bricklayers. ``Every union member I've talked to has their eyes focused on November, not July.''

``No matter who the [Democratic] candidate is, he's going to have some support of the unions,'' says Vincent Sombrotto, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Without labor strongly committed to a particular candi-date now, it will almost certainly make it easier for labor to rally behind the eventual nominee, according to Democratic strategists.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland ``is absolutely right,'' says Frank Greer, a Democratic political consultant in Washington, D.C. ``If you can't reach an agreement, you shouldn't be out there trying to force an endorsement,'' Mr. Greer says.

Organized labor is certainly divided. In last week's Iowa caucuses, for example, a CBS/New York Times poll found that Richard Gephardt received 36 percent of the Democratic union-household vote. Michael Dukakis got 21 percent, and Paul Simon won 19 percent.

The picture has not cleared in the run-up to today's New Hampshire primary. Many unions report their membership is split primarily among candidates Dukakis, Gephardt, Simon, and Jesse Jackson.

``People are not unhappy to wait and see who turns out to be a winner'' among the Democrats, says Rachelle Horowitz, political director of the American Federation of Teachers.

Even if a clear winner emerges from New Hampshire, labor won't consider an early endorsement because it is too far along in its alternate effort to get union members to run as delegates for various candidates, according to Jerry Clark, political director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

This alternate strategy does have its disadvantages, labor officials concede.

The most glaring problem is that it is difficult to rouse the rank-and-file when there is no clear candidate to motivate them. Union political officials say they saw lower union participation rates in Iowa this year than in 1984, when the AFL-CIO banded together in an unprecedented move and endorsed Walter Mondale for president.

In that race, labor proved to be a key ally in helping Mr. Mondale overcome challenger Gary Hart for the Democratic nomination.

But labor proved unable to show much clout in the general election. Despite an all-out push by the AFL-CIO, exit polls showed Mondale winning only about 53 percent of all union households. Among AFL-CIO members he only got 61 percent. Labor leaders had been hoping for at least 65 percent support for Mondale.

This time, labor will have to prove that it can be a factor in the general election.

Union political officials appear confident they can make a difference in a close election. Several major unions report increases in political contributions.

A just-released mail survey of more than 30,000 members of the Letter Carriers Union showed that 6 of the Democratic candidates, plus New York Gov. Mario Cuomo out-polled both Republicans George Bush and Robert Dole, who tied with only 5 percent support.

``That's an important group,'' Democratic Party Chairman Paul Kirk says of organized labor. ``The most important thing is that ... to a great degree they'll preserve their firepower for the main event.''

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