GRUMPY and restless, big labor unions are expressing keen disappointment with President Clinton and the Democratic Congress.
Despite the president's enduring support for national health care - a perennial labor goal - Mr. Clinton has angered many workers on other issues, including free trade and striker replacement.
Union frustration casts a pall over Democratic prospects in the 1994 congressional elections. Heavy losses by the party could hamper the president during the final two years of his term.
Yet Peter diCicco, secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO, suggests it may be time for workers to look beyond the Democratic Party for allies. He says:
``We have been held captive by the Democratic Party for a long time. We [felt] that we must always, always, always support the Democrat.... But the Democrats that are in control now are not Democrats who see a future for the American labor movement.''
Electrical union President William Bywater complains that on trade and jobs, ``I'm beginning to wonder what's the difference between their [the Democrats'] position and the Republicans' position.''
Don Radford, secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO, says his union has refused to endorse the local Democratic congressman for reelection, even though that decision may put a Republican into office. The Democrat, Rep. David Mann of Ohio, voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
All this labor indignation comes at a critical moment. Burdened by the president's sinking popularity, Democrats are struggling to retain their majority in the Senate. They are also at risk of losing ideological control of the House of Representatives, where conservative Democrats often team up with Republicans.
Mr. Bywater says despite the political risks, his International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers will no longer line up instinctively behind Democrats.
``We are supporting only those people who supported us and are against NAFTA.... We have manpower, and we will use it,'' he vows.
Tough talk aside, however, political analysts say the unions are in an awkward political position.
``I think they are painted into a corner,'' says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.``Democrats can't win anymore, as they once did in the 1930s, by simply uniting all Democrats, including unions. Now Democrats are forced to have an agenda that goes beyond the union agenda.''
Dr. Black says unionists seemed to realize the limits of their political clout in 1992, when they supported Clinton, who was billed as a moderate ``new Democrat.'' Yet ``once Clinton was in office, he was not exactly the `new Democrat' they wanted.''
Michael Byrne, an AFL-CIO spokesman, cautions against exaggerating labor anger with Democrats. Some union members, like Bywater, are more bitter than others, particularly workers in the electronics industry, which has transferred tens of thousands of jobs to Mexico and Asia, he says.
Mr. Byrne notes that the Virginia AFL-CIO recently endorsed Sen. Charles Robb (D) of Virginia, even though Mr. Robb voted for NAFTA.
Yet as Congressman Mann is learning in Cincinnati, labor anger can sting. In the May 3 Democratic primary, state Sen. William Bowen, backed by labor, came within 667 votes of ousting Mann. Analysts say it was only TV advertising that saved the incumbent.
Mann now must contend with Republican challenger Steve Chabot, a popular county commissioner. Shannon Jones, Mr. Chabot's campaign manager, says her candidate is enthusiastically courting disaffected labor voters. Even a few hundred union votes could make the difference.
The Mann-Chabot race is clearly risky for labor. Refusing to help Mann could elect another Republican and precipitate more losses for labor on issues like federal spending. Labor leaders know that, but say: We will no longer be taken for granted.
Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, says labor's strategy makes a good ``bargaining tool,'' but in the long run, labor must return to the Democrats. ``Where else do they have to go?'' he asks.
A labor favorite, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio, reflects the deep feelings of her union allies. She has few kind words for Clinton and his team on trade issues.
Ms. Kaptur charges that trade representative Mickey Kantor doesn't fight for higher standards of living, equal environmental standards, or labor rights when he makes trade deals.
``Mr. Kantor will get a very good job when he leaves the administration,'' Kaptur says. But she says the real test for Clinton and Kantor should be ``how effective they have been for the people of the United States.''