The Washington tripod of power used to be Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor. Now Big Labor is seriously weakened. As Labor Day 1981 marks the AFL-CIO centennial, leaders grimly note the following:
* Spendable weekly earnings of the average worker (with three dependents, nonfarm sector) have been steadily declining with inflation. Based on 1977 dollars they were $151.02 last year, $146.74 this July.
* Labor has lost clout in Congress; the legislature rejected a change in the National Labor Relations Act in 1978 to help unions organize; now a series of social welfare attritions loom.
* The gap between White House and AFL-CIO seems deeper than that at any comparable period in half a century.
* American workers are moving from blue-collar to white-collar jobs, presenting new problems of organization.
The news isn't all bad as Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, prepares for Labor Day and a giant "Solidarity Day" rally in Washington Sept. 19. The schism between craft and industrial unions finally ended when the auto workers union rejoined the parent organization on July 1. This brings total membership to around 15 million -- a big power by any political estimate. Recruitment continues among public employees in municipal, state, and federal agencies, the areas of largest recent expansion.
London-born Samuel Gompers helped found the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions in 1881, the parent of the AFL. He headed the union for 38 years. His successor, William Green, lasted until 1952. Mr. Kirkland followed crusty George Meany in 1979.
Organized labor and the White House are hardly on speaking terms. President Reagan will be in New York on Labor Day but hasn't been invited to review the traditional parade. Raymond Donovan, secretary of Labor, and Mr. Kirkland haven't seen each other since February. Labor bitterness grows. The organization prepares to resist these so-called "anti-union" bills in Congress:
* Excluding $4 billion in military contracts from the 1931 Davis-Bacon law, which requires "prevailing [i.e., union] wages" for federally funded construction projects:
* Modifying the 1936 Walsh-Healy Act setting workers' hours in federally funded projects in ways objectionable to unions.
* Stiffening penalties for picket-line violence with fines up to $10,000 and 20-year prison terms.
* Modifying such labor laws as occupational safety, workers' compensation, and fund disclosures.
The AFL-CIO hasn't much sympathy for the airline controllers union (which was one of the few that supported Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election) but is alarmed by Mr. Reagan's implacable approach and sees a possible union-busting course ahead.
Trade unions are seeking to impress Congress and stop attrition of membership by a militant new device -- "Solidarity Day." They are trying to make it one of the biggest mass protests of recent times. One account says that 500 buses have been engaged for use in adjacent states.
There seems genuine alarm among some labor leaders. The situation is forcing the usually nonideological trade union movement closer to direct political action and possible alignment with the Democratic Party.
Unlike union movements abroad, the AFL-cio has been friendly with both parties, seeking to reward friends and punish enemies. Mr. Kirkland's rhetoric has been heating up, however. He argues that President Reagan has brought a new philosophy of government. "The administration views government as an alien force," he told the Chicago general union board last month, ". . . as an alien force, an oppressive incubus on the backs of the people."
President Reagan has also been blunt. Speaking to editors at the White House Feb. 19, he declared himself untroubled by AFL-CIO leaders. "I happen to think that sometimes they're out of step with their own rank and file. They certainly were in the last election."