The condition of organized labor on this Labor Day weekend can be simply described. It is in, out and down.
Trade union leaders have gained more influence inside the structure of the Democratic Party than they have enjoyed for a decade. But they have lost access to the administration and leverage with Congress. As for the workers themselves, they continue to be hammered by inflation and other economic ills.
Long before the air controllers made the mistake of challenging Reagan, organized labor decided to join the political opposition to his administration. The breach that has opened between government and the unions is far too wide for Reagan to bridge with a speech or two.
Part of it goes back to Lane Kirkland's succeeding George Meany as president of the AFL-CIO in November 1979. Meany was reared in the Samuel Gompers tradition of shunning permanent political alliances. When the Democratic Party delegate-selection reforms diminished labor's voice in convention hall, and the Democrats nominated candidates like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter who had never earned the trust of union leaders, it was easy for Meany to order a virtual labor boycott of Democratic Party affairs.
But Kirkland is a partisan Democrat. He is strongly reinforced in that inclination, not only by the international union presidents who stayed involved in the party during the troubles of the 1970s, but by the recent decision of Democratic activist Douglas Fraser and his United Auto Workers to rejoin the federation.
Last winter, Kirkland negotiated the formal return of organized labor to the head table of the Democratic Party. Labor received 15 at-large seats on the national committee and, in turn, union political-action committee funds have been flowing into the party treasury.
Now there is a move to make union leaders -- along with governors and members of Congress -- automatic delegates to the 1984 convention. That would help restore to labor the veto power over Democratic presidential nominees it enjoyed up through 1968.
But labor has paid a price for its increased partisanship, in the form of a growing alienation from the people in power. Kirkland has complained that he has less access to the White House than his predecessor enjoyed, not just with Carter and other Democratic presidents, but with Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford.
The recent choice of Malcolm R. Lovell Jr. as undersecretary of labor was supposed to be a gesture to the union leaders, who griped that neither Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan nor any member of the senior White House staff consulted with them. Lovell is well respected by unionists from his days in the auto industry, but the typical attitude was expressed by a UAW official who asked, "Who the hell believes an undersecretary swings any weight?"
More vexing to the labor leaders is their loss of clout in Congress. The AFL-CIO boldly announced it was forming a coalition to fight Reagan's budget cuts and press for a wage-tilted, not business-oriented, tax cut. But members of Congress, who gave Reagan what he wanted, said there was little evidence in their mail that grass-roots workers were backing their union leaders' stands.
Stung by the charge that labor is a political paper tiger, Kirkland has ordered a mass protest march in Washington on Sept. 19 against the Reagan economic policies. Ultimately, however, the real test of labor's ability to mobilize against Reagan will come not in the size of the one-day protest, but in the pocketbook judgments of working families.
Reagan made big inroads in bluecollar precincts last November, in large part because those workers had suffered economically from Jimmy Carter's policies. Measured in constant, uninflated dollars, the real weekly earnings after taxes of the typcial factory worker with three dependents declined 9.7 percent from January 1977 to January 1981.
In the first six months of the Reagan administration, they declined another 1.1 percent. That means wages have not kept pace with inflation so far in the Reagan era either; if the same decline continues, workers would lose about as badly in Reagan's term as they did in Carter's -- and it would be no trick for Kirkland to rally them against the Republicans.
But scheduled tax cuts will increase take-home pay. And if Reagan can keep the rate of inflation moving downward, he may be able to flatten the real wage packet. That would lead to happier Labor Days, not just for labor but for the Republican Party as well.