"This is the year George Wallace could have won the presidency," a United Automobile Workers union political worker said a few days ago, although the UAW is on record as supporting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
His point was that many UAW members, like many in organized labor generally, find it hard to support either Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. They would welcome a viable alternative, but few seem to see Congressman John Anderson, a Republican running as an independent, as one.
Former Governor Wallace of Alabama, running for president as a third-party candidate in 1968, attracted considerable support among blue-collar unionists. Although some of Mr. Reagan's views -- particularly on the evils of big government and on foreign policy -- are much like those Mr. Wallace voiced, the former California governor does not appear to have the same kind of appeal to labor union members.
Analysts for the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) see the presidential race as a toss-up, with the outcome in November depending on unemployment, inflation, foreign problems, the energy situation, and perhaps other domestic issues. Labor's votes could be critical, as they were in electing Jimmy Carter in 1976. The election could hinge on switchcover votes to Mr. Reagan or Mr. Anderson from disillusioned Democrats in the unions of the heavily industrialized and normally Democratic states.
A Harris poll report in mid-May showed that, among union members surveyed nationally, Mr. Carter led Mr. Reagan by only 41 percent to 33 percent with Mr. Anderson receiving a surprising 22 percent vote.
The UAW and a few other unions still back Mr. Kennedy's candidacy for the Democratic nomination, but pro-Kennedy leaders, including UAW president Douglas Fraser, privately concede that cause is lost. Continuing support for Mr. Kennedy is intended primarily to reinforce his expected convention fight for a more liberal party platform.
Organized labor's political leaders are afraid the Democrats will lose the Senate, or that if they hold the Senate by a slim majority, conservative Democrats will join Republicans in a coalition against liberal legislation.
COPE looks for the Democrats to hold the House, but with gains for conservatives.