After nearly two decades as organized labor's top political operative, Al Barkan is stepping down as director of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education.

Throughout the politically turbulent years of the '60s and '70s, Barkan steadfastly served as the political evangelist of the late AFL-CIO president George Meany. It was Barkan who publicly took on the New Left of the Democratic Party for Meany during the explosive Vietnam war years. And it was Barkan who carried labor's banner in 1972 when the Democratic Party split over the presidential nomination of George McGovern.

The 1970s was also when labor's fortunes within the Democratic Party declined as the party machinery fell into the hands of the people Barkan loudly attacked as the disciples of the three As--acid, amnesty and abortion. For much of labor, it was a time when the party was under the control of the "kooks" and the "crazies."

Barkan's retirement, which is tentatively set for early January, comes at a time when the AFL-CIO is completely rethinking its political strategy. It also marks the departure of the last of the federation department heads from Meany's inner circle.

The retirement gives AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland a clean slate for rewriting labor's political strategy--a strategy that calls for the federation to return to a position of power within the Democratic Party. Equally important, Kirkland wants to swing the party back toward the political "mainstream."

To accomplish this, labor already has become a major financial backer of the party--already pledging nearly 20 percent of this year's Democratic National Committee budget. In addition, Kirkland appears determined to get the federation directly involved in the presidential primary election process.

Although no successor for Barkan has been picked, the early favorite, according to federation officials, is John Perkins, the associate director of COPE. Perkins, who came to the federation from the Illinois building trades, is credited with developing COPE's current computer system. And most recently he won high marks from the AFL-CIO leadership as the coordinator for the massive Sept. 19, Solidarity Day in Washington.

"He's an excellent planner," says an AFL-CIO official. But federation sources caution that if Perkins is picked for the job, he will be strictly a "nuts-and-bolts man."

The job of operating political policy within the AFL-CIO already has fallen to Ken Young, who serves as the federation's chief of staff. Young, the soft-spoken former legislative director of the AFL-CIO, has emerged as a major power within the federation as the executive assistant to Kirkland. Sources said Young forms a leadership triumvirate with Kirkland and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Donahue.

The idea of having someone other than the COPE director in charge of the federation's political policy is not new. "Al Barkan was out front making the pronouncements, but he didn't make the decisions," a federation source said, refering to Meany's policy role. But the role of Barkan's successor is expected to be much clearer.

In the meantime, Barkan, 70, will still be around. AFL-CIO officials said the COPE director plans to open a political consulting business when he retires and already has lined up several union clients.