It would be unfair to say that relations have deteriorated between the White House and organized labor since the start of the air traffic controllers strike. There never was much of a relationship to begin with.
In every administration since Herbert Hoover -- including the Republican administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford -- labor has had someone it knew and trusted at the highest level of government to deal with on labor relations matters. But not in the Reagan administration.
From the very start of the administration eight months ago, it was clear there were few people within the new government that labor knew. But although labor didn't really know anyone in the administration, the unions were confident that Reagan, like other presidents before him, would see that they had a sounding board at the White House.
Labor's expectations were summed up last January by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who observed that although he knew more people being appointed in the foreign policy area than he did in the labor area, "I don't expect to have any trouble reaching them White House officials when I need to."
Since then, however, the administration has done little to make Kirkland's prediction come true. Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, the North Jersey paving contractor who headed Reagan's New Jersey election campaign, was a virtual unknown to most national labor leaders when he was appointed by the president. He basically remains that way today.
Elsewhere in the Labor De partment, the administration has done even less to provide labor with a sounding board within the government. Reagan has yet to nominate an undersecretary of Labor, and three of the department's six assistant secretary posts remain unfilled.
At the White House, Robert Bonatati, the former pilots union official who serves as labor liaison, is less than labor had hoped for.
So far, it's hard to argue that the lack of attention to labor has had much impact on the new administration. In a matter of months, the administration has managed to enact massive tax and budget cuts over labor's strong objections while using its regulatory powers to dismantle major programs that labor worked hard to enact in the l960s and l970s.
The real onslaught against labor's favorite programs may only have begun. When Reagan first took office last January, key aides urged him to hold the congressional hardliners in check until after his economic program had been enacted. Now the administration has no real reason to try and hold back those who have been waiting for years to change the nation's basic labor laws.
More important for labor, there will be no one in the White House to make a case on behalf of the trade union movement in the event of congressional attack.
But although the risks of the current labor-White House relationship are much greater for labor, Reagan is taking a chance in the one area of his economic program where he may be vulnerable -- the government's efforts to bring down inflation.
Next year is the start of a major new round of contract bargaining. Wage gains made in key industries next year will set the pattern for the rest of Reagan's term. Unions in the trucking, rubber, electrical-manufacturing, meat-packing, clothing, auto and farm-implement industries all come up for contract renegotiation in 1982.
Although circumstances outside the bargaining table are expected to force moderation in both the trucking and auto negotiations, talks in some of the other industries could prove troublesome as the companies try to force down wage rates and end cost-of-living payments. If trouble breaks out, Reagan will need someone within the administration who can deal with labor.