LANE KIRKLAND, the 58-year-old ex-sailor who succeeded George Meany as AFL-CIO president last year, has no problem picking Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan, despite all the bitter exchanges between the union organization and the White House.

In an exceedingly frank interview ranging from politics to the need for a national industrial policy, Kirkland said the AFL-CIO executive council and board will endorse Carter "with some degree of enthusiasm and considerable peace of mind."

Yes, Kirland admitted, he is unhappy with the fact that Carter succumbed to "the hysteria" earlier this year for a balanced budget. Now, Kirkland has his fingers crossed against the prospect that Carter will join in the "tax-cutting hysteria" sweeping Congress.

But Reagan? "There's an old saying," Kirkland smiled, "that maybe sums up the choice: 'Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes clear down to the bone.'"

Kirkland, who labored for more than 30 years in the background of the union bureaucracy while Meany dominated the headlines, is -- like Meany -- a hard-liner with total dedication to the basic goals of trade unionism.

In the interview, he challenged the validity of government figures showing that in recent years gains in productivity in the private economy have plummeted -- in fact, have become negative this year. In any event, he rejects the notion that future wage increases should be tied to productivity, rather than inflation.

Across-the-board tax reductions, Kirkland snorts, are wasteful "windfalls."

He favors not the sweeping tax write-offs touted by the GOP, but carefully targeted case-by-case accelerated depreciation for specific industries (such as steel).

Kirkland welcomes Carter's recently announced package of aids for autos, and speaks in understanding terms of a series of shocks to that industry -- "not all of which are attributable to management that's any worse than the general run of American management."

IN KEEPING WITH what others see as a protectionist drift, Kirkland is willing to provide "a period of shelter" for the auto industry, to give it a chance to adjust to "predatory practices by foreign competitors." For example, he says that the Japanese "move in like tiger sharks."

The labor leader favors some sort of new industrial policy -- the latest buzz phrase in Washington -- although he does not make clear how it might work. He says the AFL-CIO would not shrink from participation in a tripartite system with government and management, and is willing, without being specific, to learn from Japanese and European experience.

But Kirkland articulates very precise views on the causes for the United States' loss of a competitive edge in production and marketing. And some of his thoughts suggest that once past propping up sick industries such as autos and steel where management and labor face a common erosion of profits and jobs, there may be great difficulty in formulating any real national industrial policy.

Kirkland points an accusatory finger, first, at the multinational or supranational corporations that "can make their separate peace with whatever barriers or incentives exist i n the world." There is no such thing as free trade, he holds, so long as the big corporations practice "rampant mercantilism."

Second, he questions some of the motivations and incentives of management. For example, he feels that some managers are "rootless adventurers" who plan to spend just a few years with a company "during which they get rich and are rewarded on the basis of cash flow." Sometimes, Kirkland charges, "you get cash flow by selling off your franchises and patents and your technology."

Kirkland fairly bristles at the suggestion that one reason for the loss of U.S. competitiveness can be traced to the absence of the right work ethic in this country.

"I THINK WE HAVE one of the more ruthless systems in the world in terms of relations between the worker and his job," he said somewhat bitterly. "By and large, we still hire workers by the hour and lay them off by the hour."

But if formulating a new industrial policy is clearly a long-range problem, the election is at hand and the AFL-CIO will be hard at work fighting Ronald Reagan. Kirkland scoffs at a Lou Harris poll showing that the rank-and-file of labor is for Reagan by a 4-to-3 margin. When it comes to pulling the lever. Kirkland says the typical union voter will remember that "Reagan is the creature of the bosses of this country."