The deep freeze in relations between unions and the Labor Department shows signs of a slight spring thaw. Secretary of Labor William E. Brock and the AFL-CIO have reopened lines of communication. This stands in marked contrast to the stony silence that characterized relations between unions and the Labor Department under former Secretary Raymond Donovan.
Still, labor officials aren't ready to soften their criticism of President Reagan's policies.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said after meeting with Secretary Brock in Washington early last week, ``There are areas in which we probably can have a constructive relationship.'' But he added that this is not enough ``to give us great grounds for optimism'' about better relations with the White House.
``We have a new secretary of labor,'' Mr. Kirkland said, ``but the tone and basic philosophy, ideology, and objectives of an administration are set by the President, and these have not changed.''
On April 26, the Senate unanimously confirmed Brock, who enjoyed labor's support. He had been the US trade representative for the past four years and frequently cooperated with unions worried about the effect of imports on jobs in the United States.
While he opposed the ``protectionist'' policies that many unions sought, he agreed with them that there is a harmful imbalance in the present international trade structure.
Brock used his first public appearance, a speech April 30 to the National Press Club in Washington, to improve relations with labor.
``We do not have to agree; we do have to talk,'' he said. ``It is not necessary for us to accept all of the arguments of those with whom we disagree. It is necessary that we respect their right to dissent and try to understand why they seem to feel so strongly that we are wrong, when we feel with just as much certainty that we are not.''
This is expected to be his policy as labor secretary. In advocating ``a healthy contest of ideas,'' he added that he hoped to cut through partisan rhetoric.
``It seems that every new idea someone puts forth is either going to set back the noble cause of the working man 30 years or is going to break the back of every honest businessman in America,'' he said.
Brock then met with the AFL-CIO executive council in Washington on May 7, and became the first labor secretary to be invited to such a session since the Reagan administration first took office, in 1981. Breaking with past precedents, the council never invited former Secretary Donovan to a meeting.
After the meeting, Brock said he sought the AFL-CIO's ``support and participation in the development of the policies of this administration.'' Mostly, he added, he listened while members of the council ``educated me'' on labor's position on such issues as a lower minimum wage for teen-agers, stronger enforcement of occupational safety and health laws, steps to reduce unemployment, and foreign trade.
Brock's first major personnel move was to select Stephen Schlossberg as deputy undersecretary of labor for labor-management relations. Mr. Schlossberg served on the staff of the United Auto Workers and was an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union before joining a law firm in Washington in 1981.