The AFL-CIO has made an extraordinary appeal to the federal government for help.

AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, reversing nearly a quarter of a century of opposition, has told Congress that organized labor needed legislative help if it is to rid its ranks of crime and corruption. Specifically, Kirkland has thrown labor's support behind Senate legislation to stiffen the penalties under the National Labor Relations Act for union officials convicted of corrupt practices.

Testifying before the Senate permanent investigations subcommitee last week, Kirkland said "the trade union movement can only be strengthened by law enforcement that dislodges those with a criminal record who may find a toehold in our structure. One of the benefits government provides is the protection of the law. As spokesman for organized labor the AFL-CIO asks that protection, emphasizes that the trade union movement sees such protection as a benefit, and pledges its cooperation in a joint endeavor with the federal government to maintain the hard-earned honor of our institutions."

Congressional sources involved in the negotiations call Kirkland's testimony "historic." They said they could recall no other time when organized labor has come to Congress and asked for stricter law enforcement measures governing the trade union movement.

For Kirkland, however, the precedent for last week's action was set by the late George Meany during the Congressional debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Asked at the time whether the ban on hiring discrimination under the proposed legislation should apply to unions as well employers, Meany replied:

"The leadership of the AFL-CIO . . . has been working ceaselessly to eliminate prejudices. . . . We have come a long way in the last 20 years--a long way farther, I might say, than any comparable organization. . . . But we have said repeatedly that to finish the job we need the help of the U.S. government."

Federation sources claim Kirkland drew heavily on Meany's experience with the civil rights legislation in forming labor's position on the new anticrime bill. Equally important, they said, Kirkland also shared Meany's belief that the Landrum-Griffin Act, enacted in l959 in the wake of highly publicized congressional hearings on labor racketeering, prevented labor from cleaning its own house.

Meany often argued that the enactment of the Landrum- Griffin Act put the federation's Ethical Practices Committee out of business because union officials would refuse to deal with the AFL-CIO investigators on grounds they would jeopardize themselves in any government investigation.

The problem of labor corruption has haunted Kirkland from the day he took office as president of the federation more than two years ago. One of his first official acts was to invite both the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters back into the AFL-CIO. The two unions, the two largest in the nation, had been out of the federation for more than a decade, the UAW because it wanted to leave in a policy dispute with Meany and the Teamsters because they were booted out by Meany in the late l950s for refusing to end corruption in their ranks.

When he invited the Teamsters back into the federation, a move that has yet to take place, Kirkland said that if the government was unable to weed out alleged corruption after years of investigation it was not the federation's business to police the giant trucking union.

This year, however, with the Republicans in control of the Senate for the first time since the founding of the AFL-CIO in the mid-1950s, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) began pressing legislation to toughen the penalties for any union official convicted of corruption. Six months ago, after first broaching the subject with the members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Kirkland quietly began negotiations with Nunn's people.

Thus, with labor now serving as the glue for a coalition of conservatives and liberals, the way appears clear for congressional approval of tough new anticorruption legislation that would make the misuse or abuse of union benefit funds a felony and force any union official to leave office upon conviction of a crime.