SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY undoubtedly made life easier for some Democrats last week. But his withdrawal as a 1984 presidential candidate may also have the unintended result of diverting the attention of his party and of its allies in organized labor from a trap of their own devising.

Kennedy clearly would have been a contender -- perhaps the main contender -- for the first major prize of the upcoming campaign, the presidential endorsement a year from now of the AFL-CIO.

Designed to make the federation a more muscular political combatant in 1984, the AFL-CIO's power-seeking plan has received precious little scrutiny since Lane Kirkland sprung the idea last August. What little critical attention it has received focused mainly on the possibility that the presence in the race of so strong and polarizing a figure as Kennedy might guarantee a deadlock.

While Kennedy's voluntary withdrawal may seem to solve a major problem, it really doesn't. If anything, his move may serve to obscure the basic flaws in the scheme without resolving them.

By adopting Kirkland's proposal to endorse a candidate, the AFL-CIO has set in motion a process that could wind up proving what its enemies have been saying for years --that organized labor is a paper tiger whose tail can be twisted and ears tweaked with impunity.

That's obviously not what the cagey and partisan federation boss had in mind when he sold the idea to the AFL-CIO executive council. But Kirkland also cleverly blueprinted an escape hatch if the affair seems as unpromising next December -- when the endorsement is supposed to be made -- as it does now.

In considering whether to exercise the built-in bailout option, the federation's leadership might save itself future grief by pondering the experience of one of its arch enemies. There were doubtless many fatal flaws in John Connally's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, and one of them was the former Democrat's success in winning the hearts and minds of the nation's corporate elite. Having acquired a boardroom base, Richard Nixon's Treasury secretary and ex Texas governor became tagged as the candidate, and perhaps captive, of a narrow interest group.

As it turned out, the Republican Party that year was more interested in building coalitions than starting class wars, and the search was on for a candidate whose appeal would be broader than the party's normal constituency. Connally's presidential chances were thereby doomed.

Labor and its allies in the Democratic Party seem inclined at the moment to disregard the Connally case on the grounds that the situations are dissimilar.

They surely are -- to a point: The AFL-CIO would do well to ask itself whether its candidate might just possibly be vulnerable to attacks during the primaries that seek to place him in Lane Kirkland's pocket. At the very least, labor's favorite likely will be obliged to spend valuable time and credibility trying to establish his independence in the eyes of the myriad other interest groups whose support he will need for the nomination and general election.

And, if he bombs among Democrats, what then becomes of the AFL-CIO as a power bloc acting on behalf of its 15 million members in less hospitable environs such as Congress and across the bargaining table?

Said one political director of a major union who is none too keen on the idea anyway, "I guess we'll just start looking around for an obituary writer."

Plainly there are risks. As one who has been over the presidential campaign course before, former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie suggested in an interview, "It (labor's endorsement) could be made to look, whether or not it in fact was, like an attempt to capture the candidate. In an early rural primary state, that could be a negative factor."

In the context of an overall campaign, however, figuring out whether the union label would be a net political plus for Walter F. Mondale, John Glenn or someone else involves confronting public attitudes about labor and its leaders. On the whole, the evidence does not suggest an abundance of admiration.

Beginning in 1936, the Gallup Poll has been measuring those attitudes by asking respondents whether they approve or disapprove of labor unions. That first year, 72 percent responded favorably. In 1953, labor union approval climbed to the highest level recorded by Gallup, 75 percent. It has been on the decline ever since, reaching its low in the most recent August 1981 survey when only 55 percent voiced approval; 35 percent disapproved.

Even more relevant may be the Lou Harris survey of American confidence in labor leaders. In September 1981, 12 percent said they have "a great deal" of confidence, while 48 percent said they have "some" confidence and 36 percent placed themselves in the "hardly any" category.

Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on federal elections calculates that an AFL-CIO endorsement would be worth about as much as a National Association of Manufacturers endorsement of a Republican. He made it clear that he didn't think that would amount to much.

Whatever other results will flow from the AFL CIO's strategy, the federation's leadership has created what almost certainly will become an extraordinary sideshow with perverse implications for the sanity of the political process.

"I think this is going to move the process forward by a big step," said Bob Strauss, former Democratic Party chairman. "I had hoped we could move it backwards."

In fact, thanks in part to Kirkland and the AFL CIO, the 1984 presidential campaign has already lurched into motion as a casual glance at Walter Mondale's travel schedule will suggest. It is no accident that he popped up before 21 labor gatherings in the August through October period, talking tough about those awful job-stealing imports. Away from the podium and in thoughful editorial page letters, Mondale's trade position seems balanced and respectful of the issue's complexity. But put him before a bunch of angry and frustrated steelworkers, and his tone becomes strident; distinctions between prudent counter measures and overt protectionism get blurred and Japan -- apparently a good whipping boy this political season -- is thrust forward as the bad guy.

Would a sensible and prudent politician like Mondale be talking this way if it wasn't for labor's endorsement -- a prize that, for all its potential liabilities, no serious Democratic presidential contender can safely forfeit to a rival?

Clearly it was no accident when seven potential presidential candidates, including Mondale and Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, showed up last August at a convention of a medium sized union, the Sheet Metal Workers, more used to obscurity than the glittery gaze of the national media.

That show of solicitude will almost certainly intensify dramatically next year, as different unions begin implementing procedures, possibly including regional conferences or caucuses, for discerning the political sentiments of their members.

It is not too far fetched to imagine the first such happening: An enterprising leader of a little known union passes word through the political grapevine that a bunch of delegates representing his people will be meeting to talk the whole thing out and take a straw poll. Sure enough, the media pour in, outnumbering the delegates by at least two to one while using their magic to transform the place into a brilliantly lit showcase for what will inevitably be billed as the "first test of strength" between Mondale and Glenn, with maybe Gary Hart and Morris Udall thrown in for good measure.

Maybe it won't happen quite this way, although something like it seems at least plausible. What is inevitable at this point is the super heated media hype that will surround the main event, the miniconvention on Dec. 13 when the AFL-CIO general board, representing 99 unions and 15 million trade uuld bnionists, meets to see if a two thirds vote can be mustered for Mondale, Glenn, Hart, or who knows -- Reuben Askew, Fritz Hollings, George McGovern, Udall, Alan Cranston, Jimmy Carter or someone as yet unknown.

Few in the labor movement or among its political allies would question the importance of reasserting the AFL-CIO's clout in the Democratic Party's presidential nominating process. The federation's new strategy is born of the failure of the old, which amounted basically to sitting on the sidelines until being presented with a general election choice between what one AFL-CIO spokesman described as "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum." A political nadir of sorts was reached two years ago when a bitter primary struggle between Jimmy Carter and Kennedy left labor almost evenly divided. In the general election, the AFL-CIO's attempt to close ranks behind President Carter failed embarrassingly as blue collar voters deserted their leaders in droves to vote for Reagan.

The idea therefore is to awaken the sleeping giant so he can get his act together in time for a hard-edged grasp for power that could profoundly affect the choice of a Democratic presidential nominee.

The other side of the coin is that it could fizzle even before the giant's alarm clock goes off, leaving the labor movement exposed as either an impotent pigmy or hopelessly divided, or both.

Kirkland has left open the possibility of cancelling the Dec. 13 meeting in the absence of a clear consensus. Under the two-thirds vote procedure with board members casting weighted proxies to reflect their union's per capita strength, the odds now seem to favor no meeting.

Kennedy's self removal probably leaves Mondale as the odds-on labor favorite -- for the time being. But the former vice president does not have a clear shot at the endorsement, by no means. Certainly Glenn, with his Ohio political base, has important friends in labor. If that's not enough to block an endorsement, a Glenn-Hart stop-Mondale alliance is just one of many such possibilities that come to mind.

Unless someone's bandwagon starts rolling very early, the ability to muster a one-third plus one veto of an AFL-CIO endorsement one way or another would seem to be within the grasp of those likely to be major contenders a year from now.

In the eyes of at least some Democrats, that could well be a blessing in disguise. There are even some reservations about Kirkland's plan within the AFL-CIO, although those doubts seem to focus prinipally on the scheme's timetable, not on the goal or means of increasing labor's clout within the party.

However, the visible and aggressive pursuit of that ojective is precisely what bothers a pragmatic moderate like U.S. Rep. Gillis Long of Louisiana, whose 1980 vote rating by the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education was a respectable -- for a southern congressman -- 63 percent. Long, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview earlier this fall that Kirkland's plan troubles him because he sees it as a move that could make the 1984 Democratic National Convention less open.

"I don't think any element of the party ought to be seen as making a determination that should be reserved to the delegates at the convention," he said.

Long also recalled that he was one of those who worked successfully to carve out a larger role for party officeholders in the interests of achieving an open convention and melding the party's disparate groups behind the eventual nominee.

"I think this is a departure from that and will lead to a splintering off. I don't think it is healthy," Long said.

Nonetheless, one cannot overlook the possibility -- La ne Kirkland obviously hasn't -- that the AFL-CIO may pull it off, that organized labor will emerge as the kingmaker of 1984. There are certainly enormous potential advantages from the candidate's point of view to winning formal AFL-CIO support more than two months before the Iowa caucuses provide the first test of strength involving actual Democrati9 unions anc voters.

Herbert Alexander, director of thed b Citizens Research Foundation and a leading authority on campaign financing, estimates that organized labor's efforts on Carter's behalf during the general election campaign were worth over $15 million. Those efforts included identifying and registering likely Carter voters, and then getting them to the polls on election day.

Alexander said there is no way to estimate the dollar value of a labor endorsement prior to the 1984 primaries except to assume that "it's worth quite a bit." Also of "immeasurable" value, he said, would be the psychological edge of winning what would become the de facto first primary election of the campaign.

Said Strauss, "Labor brings a lot to the table. If you don't think the United Auto Workers are going to be helpful in Iowa, you're dead wrong. Or in Ohio or Michigan. Labor can put people on the street that no one else can and when they have a stake in it, they'll do it."

Maybe, maybe not.

With a note of ironic melancholy in his voice, Muskie weighed those possibilities by recalling his own ill-fated presidential campaign a decade ago.

"I pursued an endorsement strategy on the theory that if we could get the leaders to endorse, then their natural followers would follow.

"Well, it didn't quite work out that way," said Muskie, recalling his bid for the 1972 Democratic nomination that was captured by George McGovern.

"We found that endorsement by the leaders wasn't the same thing as endorsement by the followers."