Two years ago, when he became AFL-CIO president, Lane Kirkland, the onetime merchant marine captain, described how he would run the nation's largest labor organization: "Full ahead. Steady as she goes."

Now, three days before the end of his first term, AFL-CIO officials and members gathering here for the federation's 14th constitutional convention say that Kirkland, who faces no opposition for reelection, has kept his word.

"There have been no drastic changes in policies. There has just been an acceleration of pace," said Kenneth Young, Kirkland's executive assistant. He said the federation has adopted "some new techniques and programs" under Kirkland's rule and has become more politically active, particularly in the Democratic Party. But Kirkland generally has remained true to the basic policy course set by the late George Meany, the AFL-CIO's first president, Young said.

Kirkland, 59, was Meany's hand-picked successor to the federation's presidency. He had served at Meany's side for 19 years, first as executive assistant to the president and later as secretary treasurer of the federation, before being elected president in November 1979. Meany, then 85 and ailing, told the 1979 convention delegates that his long association with Kirkland had convinced him that "Lane . . . has the know-how, motivation and dedication" to keep the AFL-CIO on course in what, even at that time, was developing into stormy economic and political weather.

Stylistically, Kirkland's deadpan, plodding, scholarly personal demeanor had always set him apart from Meany, who had a gift for spicy, pugilistic oratory. Kirkland hasn't changed much in that regard. Tape recorders at his press conferences are a must for reporters who have no background in existentialist philosophy or other humanities. But the man can write, a quality that makes him much better in print than he is at the podium.

Kirkland has gotten rid of some of his shyness, though. He's working the crowds better at labor dinners and similar functions. In the vernacular of the most street-wise rank-and-filer, he even "got down" on several occasions, carrying picket signs with striking air traffic controllers, for example.

Some labor observers, such as Joel Denker, an author and professor of labor studies at the University of the District of Columbia, believe Kirkland is as much a man for his times as Meany was for his. More union members are better educated. More are moving into "white collar" occupations. More are looking for benefits--such as educational subsidies--other than increases in wages, Denker said. "People like that probably can identify better with a Kirkland than a Meany," Denker observes.

Kirkland wept publicly upon Meany's resignation. Today, nearly two years after Meany's death on Jan. 10, 1980, Kirkland says that the loss of his predecessor "is beyond measure." But he insists that the institution Meany shaped "remains strong, rooted in the needs and aspirations of working men and women, from whom it continually draws new leadership at every level."

In light of that history and those strongly held feelings, Kirkland's continued adherence to Meany's practical nuts-and-bolts approach to unionism is not surprising, Young and other AFL-CIO officials say. But, nonetheless, Kirkland has managed to put his own mark on the AFL-CIO. The success of the federation's "Solidarity Day," an event that brought more than 250,000 people to Washington Sept. 19 to protest President Reagan's economic and social policies, is an example of the Kirkland character at work, supporters say.

By the standards of the normally stodgy AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Day demonstration was militant action. Meany, who eschewed active AFL-CIO participation in the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, probably would not have endorsed the Solidarity Day idea. Indeed, according to federation sources, a number of the 33 members of the AFL-CIO's executive council were lukewarm to Kirkland's call for a mass demonstration. But two things happened to turn what could have been a severe political embarrassment to Kirkland into what labor leaders here still are calling an astounding political success--an event federation officials insist has put the AFL-CIO back on the map as an aggressive defender of working people's rights.

First, Reagan fired nearly 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, a union that called an illegal strike against the government on Aug. 3. Second, labor officials say, Reagan announced another deep round of budget cuts, much to the chagrin of labor and civil rights leaders who felt that their constituencies had already suffered enough.

"That thing started out as something of a personal dispute between Reagan and Lane," Washington labor lobbyist Allen Zack, a member of the Kamber Group, says, commenting on the Solidarity Day protest. "The president was going around saying that labor leaders did not represent their members. That made guys like Lane angry. But it's hard to get a demonstration going over personal anger. But then the administration did something stupid. They fired those controllers and cut the budget and got a whole lot more people as angry as Lane."

The success of that demonstration marks what some people here see as the strong and weak points of Kirkland's presidency. On one hand, some here say privately that had Kirkland cultivated relationships with the current administration, Solidarity Day would not have been necessary. On the other, they say that it proves Kirkland's ability to organize the rank and file and to call out the troops when that kind of support for AFL-CIO positions is needed.

Now, what labor leaders here are looking for is a sign that Kirkland has some idea of where to go following the demonstration. Kirkland and his supporters say that they have an answer. They have targeted Nov. 2, 1982, election day for many members of Congress, as the next Solidarity Day.

"No one demonstration, however massive and spirited, can reverse the course of this administration," Kirkland said in a speech here over the weekend. "But Solidarity 1981 was only the beginning. In the months ahead, the trade union movement and the other voluntary groups that joined with us Sept. 19 will be working for a successful Solidarity Day 1982.

"On that day, election day, in every state and congressional district, we intend to do everything in our power to elect a Congress that will change the course of the ship of state--that will not turn its back on those adrift on our stormy economic seas."

However, not everyone in the 15 million-member federation, which has an estimated 20 percent Republican membership, is satisfied with that charge. Some grumble to themselves that Kirkland is moving too swiftly and too firmly into the arms of the Democratic Party. Others are unhappy that no major Reagan administration official, including the president or Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, has been invited to speak at the convention--an obvious snub of the administration that carries some personal as well as political overtones.

AFL-CIO leaders such as Young say they are aware of the political discontent of some of their members. "Lane is very conscious about those individual members who are Republicans," Young said. "But he feels that we have to become more politically involved. We would have liked for that involvement to occur in both parties. But we were only invited to the Democratic Party."

Besides increased political activity, Kirkland's "accelerated pace" also has brought about four mergers of national and international AFL-CIO affiliates and the reaffiliation of the 1.4 million-member United Auto Workers union. The UAW had broken away from the federation in 1968 in a dispute over political and social issues. By rejoining the AFL-CIO this year, it brought more money (based on a 19-cent monthly per capita "tax") and political muscle to the organization.

Partly as a result of the UAW's reaffiliation, the AFL-CIO's net worth increased $4.47 million over the past two years, and now stands at $25.54 million.

Kirkland also has moved in the area of civil rights, although movement on anything that controversial within the ranks of the AFL-CIO should be viewed with patience and great perspective. Besides one black, Frederick O'Neal, president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, the federation's 33-member excecutive council now has one woman, Joyce Miller, vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union and president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Kirkland and federation leaders concede that that is token progress. But the AFL-CIO president says he is committed to "strengthening minority participation on the council and at every level of the trade union movement."

The council has five vacancies that are scheduled to be filled at the convention that opens tomorrow.

Under Kirkland, the AFL-CIO is pouring more money and effort into union organizing campaigns, ventures in which unions are losing more than they are winning nowadays. Still, AFL-CIO affiliates have chalked up some notable victories in the past two years. Two examples include a campaign in Los Angeles and neighboring Orange County in which AFL-CIO affiliates organized 26,500 since 1979, and organizing drives in Cincinnati that have added another 11,500 members since 1980.

There have been symbolic victories in the South, where AFL-CIO affiliates and other unions are playing catch-up in an effort to grab a piece of that region's economic growth. Examples there include victories by the steelworkers in Newport News and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers in winning contracts at J.P. Stevens in Roanoke Rapids and several other Stevens plants in the South.

But no one here is under any illusions that those successes mean smoother sailing for the AFL-CIO. Young, for example, said the federation leadership is strongly considering asking convention delegates for an increase in the per-capita tax so that the AFL-CIO may mount additional organizing campaigns in the South and elsewhere, as well as establish multimedia public relations campaigns and grassroots political efforts.

"There has never been a time when our gains were fully safe or secure," Kirkland said in address to the federation's maritime trades department Thursday. "We have fought against, entrenched and determined our position for 100 years, many times against greater odds than we face today, and we are certainly not about to abandon the struggle now," he said.

The 100 years quote referred to the founding of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions on Nov. 15, 1881, which led to the establishment five years later of the American Federation of Labor. In 1955, the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged with the AF of L, thus creating the AFL-CIO, which is holding its "centennial" celebration this year.