After four years of frigid relations between the Labor Department and the AFL-CIO, a thaw has begun with the nomination of William Brock to be secretary of labor. But it may prove very difficult to draw unions substantially closer to the Reagan administration. ``While we have not always agreed, he has earned our respect,'' Mr. Kirkland said of Mr. Brock. ``We look forward to a new and constructive relationship with the Labor Department.''
But the head of the 13.7 million-member federation and other labor officials made clear that ``respect'' for Brock and a promise to work with him toward closer ties between the Labor Department and unions should not be interpreted as a softening of organized labor's strong opposition to President Reagan.
``We have an administration with which we totally disagree,'' a union official said in Washington. ``It would be a miracle if Bill Brock changes that. I don't believe in miracles.''
If Brock, who has been United States trade representative, wins the expected Senate approval as labor secretary, he will face difficult times in his presidential mission to ``rebuild and maintain'' administration ties with labor and to ``attack the serious endemic problems of youth unemployment, in particular minority youth.''
The AFL-CIO within the past week continued its sharp attacks on the Reagan administration. It criticized the appointment of ``another management attorney'' to the National Labor Relations Board that is, as a union spokesman put it, ``antithetical to worker's interests.'' The union has branded the administration's budget plans ``morally as well as financially unbalanced.''
A first test of Brock's effectiveness may be in regard to an AFL-CIO attempt to avert the loss of unemployment benefits to some 400,000 long-unemployed workers at the end of March. Labor would also like to see a halt in the administration's efforts to set a lower minimum wage for those 16 to 19 years old.
Because of the collapse of communications between organized labor and the Labor Department under former Secretary Raymond Donovan, unions had no direct input in the formulation of administration policy. Labor Department influence on decisionmaking was marginal -- at best -- during most of President Reagan's first administration.
That is expected to change now. Even before his appointment was announced, Mr. Brock took the initiative by telephoning Lane Kirkland to tell him of his nomination. He called the AFL-CIO's president ``an old friend, a man I have a great respect for, and a man I think I can work with comfortably.''
To Brock, opening up channels of communication and cooperation with labor is an exciting challenge. To President Reagan, his trade representative is a proven negotiator, who, he says, ``can negotiate almost anything.''
To organized labor, the labor secretary-designate is a potential friend, although one likely to disagree with unions on many issues.