Union officials are surprisingly optimistic about President-elect Ronald Reagan's nominee for secretary of labor, Raymond J. Donovan, a construction company executive few knew when he was named to the Cabinet Dec. 16. Labor had not been consulted, and the candidates backed by unions had been largely ignored.
When the appointment of the New Jersy construction company executive was announced, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, could say only: "I look forward to meeting Mr. Donovan. We offer him our pledge of cooperation." Douglas A. Fraser, president of the United Automobile Workers, similarly said, "We do not know Mr. Donovan, but wish him well."
Generally, labor was prepared to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the man who, by the 1913 law that established the US Department of Labor, is charged with fostering, promoting, and developing the welfare of wage earners. Union leaders took a similar attitude four years ago when Ray Marshall, little known to labor nationally, was picked from Texas academic circles to be Jimmy Carter's labor secretary.
Mr. Marshall's background was primarily in manpower and minority affairs. He had had little or no experience in collective bargaining and other union-related matters. His performance as head of the Labor Department has been low key. Unions consider him a relatively weak secretary, largely because he has not been an activist, helpful on union issues. He has served mostly as a conduit between the White House and unions on labor matters.
Mr. Reagan's nominee, Donovan, has dealt locally with unions from management's side of the bargaining table. New Jersey construction unions told the AFL-CIO that they have found him "a hard negotiator, but fair and objective." They said they consider him "a main of his word."
Donovan held membership cards in unions for short periods in the 1950s. He is not considered "unfriendly" to unions, although labor believes him to be conservative in his views.
He has weaknesses in broad labor policy matters, particularly on a national basis. The incoming administration and Donovan are expected to choose men and women with experience in specific fields for undersectary of labor and other appointive offices -- and organized labor's suggestions are being considered.
Mr. Donovan has not discussed views on specific labor issues, saying that it would not be appropriate to do so before his Senate confirmation hearing. However, he has indicated that he approves of "jawboning" to hold down wages and prices, and those who know him well say he can be expected to "twist arms, but with straight talk and humor" to get agreements.
Labor officials are accustomed to dealing with those willing to negotiate under such circumstances. They say they expect Donovan to be a labor secretary with whom they can come to "sound" mutual agreements on economic, social, and labor matters.
Tests will come quickly in 1981. One involving possible guideline policies on wages will come in major bargaining that could contribute to continuing double-digit inflation, one of Reagan's priority problems.Another test could come on the controversial proposal to revise the federal minimum wage law to allow subminimum pay for teen-agers. Donovan's position on that could effect the degree of support he will get from unions in the future.
Although the National Right to Work Committee, an organization strongly opposed by organized labor as anti-union, is enthusiastic about Donovan as one who shares many of its basic tenets, including objections to compulsory unionism , union spok esman say that they doubt this.