For the first time in modern history, a major American labor organization may endorse a presidential candidate - Walter F. Mondale - even before he's nominated, let alone before the first state primary is held.
Breaking with the past, the AFL-CIO general board will consider on Saturday whether to take a step that ties the organized labor movement more directly to the American political process. The delegates to the meeting represent the 13.5 million members in the 95 unions of the AFL-CIO.
The vote of the AFL-CIO executive council is scheduled at Hollywood, Fla., on Saturday, just before the four-day annual convention of the labor body. The presidential candidate who receives two-thirds of the council votes will be recommended for endorsement to the convention.
Just whom the council will endorse is uncertain. Besides front-runner Mondale , six other Democrats running for president will have supporters: Sens. John Glenn of Ohio; Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina; Gary Hart of Colorado; and Alan Cranston of California; and Reubin Askew, former Florida governor, and former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.
Simultaneously, several thousand Down East Democrats come to Augusta, Maine, on Saturday for a special straw poll. Restless political stirrings are part of the elaborate business of picking a presidential candidate. But no ballots so far have the potential importance of the Florida labor contest.
American labor parties rarely have been ideological, contrary to class-conscious Europeans. Organization in America began with narrow, craft-oriented unions like the one organized by Samuel Gompers in the American Federation of Labor. Ultimately the auto workers broke away into the CIO industrial unions; now this breach is healed and the body united. The current president is Lane Kirkland.
The American labor movement, however, has been losing ground. When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, 35 percent of nonfarm workers belonged to unions. Today the number of unionists has grown to more than 20 million, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the proportion to all workers has sunk and trade unions' political clout has diminished. Thus what happens now in Florida could be historic as the AFL-CIO seeks to regain political clout.
There are dangers in the situation for Mr. Mondale, too. He wants union support, but does not want to be wholly identified with it. It is a cautious love affair, with other suitors on hand watching.
The AFL-CIO formally denounces the Reagan administration ''for imposing severe economic hardship on millions of American families.'' A recent council report cites what it calls ''the most difficult economic recession since the Great Depression 50 years ago'' and declares that this is ''the specific result of national policies directed for the first time in history to reduce inflationary pressure by raising the level of unemployment.''
Mr. Kirkland is believed by many to be the guiding hand in what some see as a historic departure from labor's political policy of neutrality. In a five-page introduction to the executive council's report to the labor convention, he summarizes his views, which are in frank opposition to the Reagan program.
The labor movement, he declares, ''deserves much of the credit'' for what he calls deepening resistance to administration programs, ''because it has been the leading, most coherent and effective force arrayed against the administration's unfair and regressive policies.''
The sharpness of the federation's attack on Reagan's economic policies indicates the direction of further political assaults. The White House position is that the economy is on the way up. Some think the upturn will dominate the 1984 elections.
The 333-page executive council report sounds like an old-fashioned political platform. Kirkland hints at this. He claims there has been ''growing unity'' in the past two years, as reflected in the prospect that ''the convention, acting on the recommendation of the general board, will be able to endorse a candidate'' for the presidential nomination. He says this reflects willingness of affiliates ''to subordinate parochial interests to the larger interests of the movement.''
Apparent determination of labor leaders to back Mondale comes over the protest of Senator Glenn that the action does not reflect rank-and-file sentiment. In the past the federation always has waited until both national political conventions picked presidential candidates. The reason of the change is to give labor a greater, earlier role.