The AFL-CIO plans a major push for a national industrial policy to combat the erosion of America's industrial base that has cost millions of jobs that are unlikely to be reclaimed even with economic recovery.
At this point, the drive is little more than a gleam in the eye of the leadership of organized labor, which is groping for a solution to the structural changes that have sliced into the country's manufacturing output and laid waste much of its industrial heartland.
In the process, labor officials and leading Democratic politicians are seeking a way to turn a fuzzy concept that is popular among some intellectuals into a mass movement that will provide an alternative to Reaganomics for the 1984 election.
Ill-defined as the "industrial policy" concept is, the White House and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, have mobilized against it.
Before leaving the White House, former top domestic aide Edwin L. Harper attacked it; the Reagan administration formed its National Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, designed in part to counter loud Democratic calls for such a policy, and the Heritage Foundation has moved quickly to develop a major effort opposing it.
One of the prime concerns of the White House and the Heritage Foundation is that industrial policy implies central government planning. That may be true for some advocates, but former United Automobile Workers president Douglas Fraser said his members are deeply suspicious of government interference.
"They really believe the government could screw up a two-car funeral," he told a seminar in Baltimore last month sponsored by the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department.
The seminar--which brought together international union heads, congressmen and congressional aides, industrial leaders and academics--was designed to test a 32-page draft statement on industrial policy that, in refined form, is to be presented at the AFL-CIO's annual convention in October as a cornerstone of labor's strategy for the 1984 election.
Broad support for the concept and its aims were elicited at the seminar, but there was little agreement on the specifics of what an industrial policy should contain. And some of the top corporate executives there objected to the partisan, anti-Reagan tone of the draft position paper.
The draft declaration attacks the notion that the United States can give up its ailing smokestack industries in favor of a service economy. "Such a mythology is seriously misleading," the draft document said, "for no society--certainly not a great society--can survive by asking its citizens to take in each other's laundry and selling each other life insurance."
It calls for a tripartite National Industrial Policy Board, composed of labor, business and government, to oversee the rebuilding of America's industrial base. There would also be a financing agency, patterned after the New Deal's Reconstruction Finance Corp., that would arrange funding to revitalize basic industry.
Some top labor leaders at the Baltimore seminar wanted the AFL-CIO policy to focus on the unfinished social agenda of the '70s, such as jobs, health, housing and civil rights. Academics and politicians feared industrial policy would be dismissed as the liberals' attempt to continue Great Society programs. Others pointed to the possible problem that industrial policy would be seen as a deal between big business and big labor without attacking basic problems that both had helped create.
The importance of the Baltimore meeting, though, lay in its high-powered cast: heads of three major companies; five top international union officials, including AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland; economists; two senators and two congressmen, and congressional staff aides.
Boston College economist Barry Bluestone said encouraging economic indicators, such as the strong 8.7 percent rise in GNP during the second quarter of this year, lulls the public into envisioning a rosy future that is unlikely. Dozens of industrial sectors, he said, will never come back from the massive structural changes that he calls the de-industrialization of America, including the movement of much of the country's manufacturing capability to foreign countries.
Most disturbing to organized labor are the new forecasts by economists, including some liberal gurus from Democratic administrations, that consider 8 percent joblessness as a full-employment economy--twice as high as the former definition of 4 percent.
That new definition is clearly unacceptable to labor, which sees jobs as the motivating force behind any industrial policy.
The major problem, however, is how to achieve that end. Besides being undecided about the content of industrial policy legislation, labor strategists are not sure whether they should push for a series of bills that together would spell out the kind of program to revitalize the country's industrial base or push for one large omnibus bill.
Democratic contenders have grasped the industrial policy issue and incorporated it in their early position papers.