There could be no doubt after seeing perhaps a quarter-million anti-Reagan protesters assembled over the weekend on the grassy Washington Mall by Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, that the eight-month-old Reagan administration has domestic trouble on its hands.
President Reagan promises more of the same in his fight against inflation, and charges that labor leaders don't represent the rank and file.
Mr. Kirkland and fellow leaders of the spectacular outdoor solidarity rally here Sept. 19 retort that the President has no mandate for cutting social programs to make way for tax cuts and increases in defense.
On both sides it is an unusual kind of confrontation. They physical success of the rally means that the labor and assorted movements have become a stronger political force for consideration of White House and Congress. The rally was a gamble for the weakened labor organization.
For President Reagan, who sat out the affair at his Rapidan camp, 60 miles away, it means that after eight months in office he has a substantial domestic political danger even as he wrestles with the economic problem, and with threats from abroad.
Ironically, Wall Street has not yet responded to the same program that trade unions, for different reasons, oppose.
The mood of the great crowd, which stretched from the Washington Monument to the head of the Mall, and which the National Park Service estimated at 240,000, was an unusual mixture. It seemed a cross section of middle- and working-class America. It came from as far away as California. It was not fervent like the civil rights demonstration of August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It was not hysterically militant like the antiwar protests, when President Nixon stayed in the White House, barricaded by parked buses.
The mood now seemed quietly indignant with an undercurrent of hurt bewilderment, judging by signs, personal conversations, and speeches. There were smiling exchanges among different cohorts. There were no arrests. It was a combination of political rally, strike meeting, religious revival, and outdoor picnic, under chilly skies. There was grim humor. Referring to recent cutbacks in federal subsidies for school lunches in which ketchup has been substituted for one of the two previously required vegetables, a speaker declared, "I say 'no' to the philosophy that says, 'let them eat ketchup.'"
Nearly everybody had a placard, printed or homemade. One of the latter proclaimed simply, "No Mandate From Me." Another said enignatically, "Mass Transit Not Missiles." There were lots of ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) signs. There was a marked antiwar undercurrent. Now and then the crowd joined in singing, and there were occasional mass responses in cadence to speakers' oratorical questions. Amplifiers studded the Mall.
Nearly everybody seemed to feel the great meeting was somehow historic, but it was uncertain for what. Statements from political leaders followed: Mr. Reagan from Cam David -- placatory; Vice-President George Bush in Denver questioning again labor leaders' authority; Democrats charging that the administration is out of touch.
Trade unions now have membership of around 15 million. Membership hasn't kept pace with population and today four out of five US workers are outside unions. Inflation has been shrinking purchasing power. There is a shift from blue-collar to white-collar jobs, and the growth of multinational conglomerates makes it possible to shift jobs abroad. When the auto workers helped bail out Chrysler, the union gave up an estimated billion dollars worth of promised wages and benefits.
Unions have another problem -- corruption. Some charge this is growing. US organized labor is alone among Western democracies in its nonideological character, and the upholder of established values within the capitalist system. Most past leaders from Samuel Gompers down, eschewed radical social reform and identification with particular parties. This may be changing.
The unions' political influence seems at the lowest ebb since its high water mark after World War II. Leaders have seen a conservative administration take over the White House; there is no insider there with whom they can talk things over and ameliorate disagreements, relations with Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan are frigid, and the administration's program of budget cuts weaken agencies for which unions have fought for years.