If organized labor in the United States is to grow, most observers say it will have to do so in the white-collar ranks.
Toward that possible end, some of most articulate national labor leaders have begun building new bridges to the collegiate community - and in the hallowed halls of Ivy League schools, no less.
The latest to do so is AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who spent Oct. 4-5 at Dartmouth College here, making speeches and engaging students in give-and-take sessions in their classrooms. It was his first visit to a college campus since taking over the federation reins in 1979, but it is unlikely to be the last.
AFL-CIO director of information Murray Seeger said he was pleased with the way the visit progressed, and a Dartmouth spokesman said it ''has this campus in a buzz.''
Two weeks ago, the young and forceful Gerald McEntee, president of the million-member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, called at Harvard University. His purpose: to announce the establishment of a $1 million fund there in the name of the late AFSCME president Jerry Wurf which will finance scholarship programs, a lecture series, and an annual fellowship. He also made what was billed as a major address.
''But it's a two-way street,'' says Mr. Seeger. ''We can't do it by ourselves. (Dartmouth) reached out for Kirkland. I presume other schools will react the same way. I hope so, because we feel very much that our point of view is not fully presented in academic terms.''
These visits come against a backdrop of news and developments that labor can hardly welcome. Not only is union membership leveling off and the unionized percentage of the work force dropping, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, but labor also is up against opposition from business and conservative groups which continues to be vigorous despite the economy. Its ambitious and much-publicized organizing effort in Houston has made only modest progress so far, and will take years to achieve the hoped-for goals, by the federation's own admission.
Moreover, the national employment statistics for September, released Oct. 8, show the unemployment rate has reached over 10 percent of the work force for the first time since 1940. Many of those who lost their jobs in the latest survey are dues-paying union members.
At Dartmouth, however, Kirkland disputed the notion that his movement has lost the capacity to adjust to changing times. He cited its evolution from a federation of horse-collar makers, oystermen, and box sawyers and nailers in Samuel Gompers's day to one of airline pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics now.
''We've been living with these evaluations of our deficiencies all our lives, '' the AFL-CIO leader declared. ''A fundamental error of analysis of movements like ours is to take very limited data and project profound conclusions from them. We've always adapted. We've always wound up reflecting the current state of the work force.''
Kirkland called white-collar union growth over the last 10 years, especially in the service industries, ''phenomenal'' and ''a consequence of what's happening in our society.''
AFL-CIO officials eye covetously such heretofore unorganized white-collar sectors as the high-tech industry and even nonprofit agencies like community mental health units.
''All professional organizing is difficult,'' an AFL-CIO official said at Dartmouth. ''But the nature of work is changing very rapidly. If a fellow gets a certificate from school, he thinks he's on easy street. After he's on the job for a while, he finds that everybody else in that room (is) doing the same kind of work. Then he starts thinking of himself more as an industrial worker. And then he starts thinking in terms of organizing.''