CRITICS OF Walter Mondale who say that he would be a puppet of big labor bosses if he became president have it backwards. The greater likelihood is that labor would be so dependent on a future President Mondale that it would be unable to recover the strength and influence it has lost in recent years.

Defeating Reagan is labor's number one priority, there can be no doubt about that. But the unions can best serve their own interests by drawing up their own agenda for combatting corporate abuse of American workers, not by binding themselves to Mondale's "New Realism."

Startling as it may sound, labor could do worse in this campaign than to take a page from the book of Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition. Jackson and his supporters have been effective in mobilizing black voters this year by vigorously representing black interests. Jackson is now in a far better position to help the Democratic ticket in the South and the industrial North than he would have been if he had decided to line up dutifully behind Mondale last spring.

By the same token, a labor movement that was fighting for its own agenda would be a real rainbow coalition of America's working people: blacks, women, Hispanics and whites, some 20 million members strong.

As things stand now, labor (with the exception of the Teamsters, who have endorsed Reagan) is working quietly and efficiently on behalf of Mondale, utilizing money and all the high-tech advertising devices available in U.S. elections. Only last week, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland announced a $1 million television advertising blitz aimed at sprucing up labor's image. This is all well and good, but it will not mobilize rank and file voters.

Kirkland has charged in several speeches that business has launched a "class war" against American workers. Suppose the AFL-CIO was to propose a counterattack. It might begin by calling on all union members to sign up one non-union friend or neighbor, as the starting point for a new grass roots organizing campaign. It might announce an effort to create community-wide councils of unemployed union members to work as local labor organizers and activists. And it could announce a break with labor-business cooperation in key industries, and even call for city-wide general strikes in support of local unions fighting for survival.

In addition to galvanizing union members and injecting a note of excitement into the campaign, such a departure would put needed distance between labor on one side and Mondale and the Democratic Party on the other.

The economic strategy that is emerging in the Mondale campaign does not suit labor's needs. Mondale favors cooperation between business, labor and government to hold down prices and protect domestic industries. The Democratic Party platform adopted in San Francisco makes no mention of the anti- union actions of corporations and instead calls for "broadening labor-management cooperation." But confrontation with business, not cooperation, is what unions need. It is time for labor to recognize that joining boards of directors and participating in high- level labor-management committees has become a way of co-opting union leaders.

If labor blindly follows Mondale into the White House, there is a good chance that it will suffer the same fate as French trade unions under Socialist President Francois Mitterand. Once Mitterand won with trade- union support, he turned to economic policies that favored entrepreneurs and corporations at the expense of workers.

Labor's acquiesence in Mondale's proposals for cooperation harken back to the postwar entente between management and labor. That honeymoon was made possible by the unprecedented economic expansion after World War II. Labor became a junior partner with business in the enterprise known as the American Century. It supported Cold War foreign policies and, for the most part, did not challenge business's role in the econmomy.

But the basis for this accommodation vanished more than a decade ago. Since the early '70s, business has viewed reduced wages and benefit for workers as a source of profitability in a more competitive global economy, and has done its best to weaken unions.

Nothing in the election of Walter Mondale is likely to change either the anti-union attitude of America employers or the economic and social trends that are undermining the labor movement. Decreasing union membership and concessions in union contracts did not begin with the Reagan presidency, though his administration has certainly compounded the unions' problems.

By the end of the 1970s, union representation in the workforce had slipped near the 20 percent mark, down from over one-third representation in the 1950s. In the 1970s, for the first time, unions began to lose more bids to represent employes than they they won. Decertification elections, in which employes vote to get rid of an existing union, rose from a stable 200 per year through the '50s and '60s to 800 per year in the late 1970s, and exceeded 900 in 1980.

The same period saw the creation of a new breed of union-busting consultants who specialize in defeating union organizing drives. Unfair-labor-practice complaints more than doubled between 1970 and 1980. In 1978, with Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, a union bid for a labor law reform bill was frustrated by a Senate filibuster and lackluster backing from the Carter White House.

The rise of the suburbs and the Sunbelt, the mobility of capital and the growing competition from countries with lower labor costs all tended to erode union strength in key industrial sectors like mining, transportation, manufacturing and construction. The growing service and high-technology sectors of the economy have stayed resolutely non- union. An increase in public employee unionism compensated in part for membership losses, but the overall change threatens to push the labor movement toward the margins of the economy.

Thus far, labor's tactics for fighting the corporate assault have relied heavily on slick, high-tech methods, or on public relations. Some unions are contracting with pollsters to uncover issues that might appeal to employes in non-union plants. Several unions have organized demonstrations at corporate stockholder meetings to publicly highlight links between directors, stockholders groups and banks. Others have given consideration to withdrawing pension funds from companies that resist unions in order to depress the stock of those companies. At the same time, the AFL-CIO has formed the Labor Institute for Public Affairs to develop a labor- oriented cable television network, to produce image-enhancing labor programs for commercial television,and otherwise move labor into state-of-the-art PR.

The problem with this media-oriented approach is that it takes union affairs out of the hands of rank and file members and turns them over to investment counselors, pollsters, lawyers, consultants, publicists and other professionals. It has the added disadvantage of drawing union leaders away from the more productive work of day-to-day trade unionism, thus widening the gap between them and their members.

Innovation gives the appearance of progress, but the anti-unionism of business continues to grind away at trade unionism in the workplace.

Business maintains that concessions are needed to make them more competitive, and, indirectly, to save jobs. Many unions have found, in fact, that such concessions have done little to stop companies from closing plants or cutting jobs. But even if business's assertion were correct, it is not the role of labor unions to bail out management, but to defend their members' living standards and working conditions.

The obvious danger of the present situation is that with labor unconditionally on board his bandwagon, Mondale can begin playing to business and other conservative forces.

To avoid this happening, the unions must develop their own agenda. The focus on Mondale merely distract's the rank and file from this task, and holds out false hopes that he can rescue labor from its underlying predicament. People are not going to be rallied behind unions with vague proposals for business-labor-government planning committees and reconstruction-finance banks. The 80 percent vote in heavily unionized Rhode Island against the "Greenhouse Compact," a prototype of the program suggested by Mondale's labor supporters, indicates the degree of skepticism, if not hostility, among rank-and-filers about what they see as elite deal-making.

An independent labor program should address the plant closings and runaway shops that are eroding the labor movement. It should hit back hard at corporate dominance and provide an alternative vision of worker and community power. Such a program should be grounded in tough bargaining, shop stewards responsive to the needs of members, and, when needed, a well-prepared and well-conducted strike.

(The impression that strikes are always a lost cause is not correct. The United Electric Workers won a seven-month strike against concession demands of Westinghouse Air Brake Company two years ago with just such a program. And the labor movement could have helped the Amalgamated Transit Union win the Greyhound strike last year with better planning and mobilization of its resources.)

Labor has shown an ability to win battles when it decides to stand and fight. A coalition of unions led by the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department helped 2,000 workers at Litton Industries' new microwave oven plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., finally achieved a contract settlement last month. four years after they first voted to be represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers negotiated a final settlement last year with J.P. Stevens & Co., of all oustanding issues in their 20-year labor disupte, with the union solidly dug in in key Stevens plants.

Around the country, unsung local unions and local union organizers are bargaining for gains and pushing new organizing campaigns. Embryonic organizing committees are forming in many of the supposedly unorganizable service and high-technology companies. Even at IBM, which does not have a single unionized employe and which prides itself in "progressive" employe relations, workers recently formed an organizing committee at the big Endicott, N.Y., plant.

Union activists and potential union activists would welcome a real fight instead of the thin gruel being served up by Mondale. But instead of putting together a strategic, issues-oriented movement, labor is still looking to Mondale for salvation. This promotes false hopes that solutions to the unions' problems can be found at some remote high level, rather than in the workplaces where workers are actually organizing and bargaining with their employers.

The real source of labor's strength is rank-and-file workers who are, or want to become, members of an aroused, active, organizing labor movement. Only a policy of class-conscious, aggressive, rank-and-file unionism that challenges corporate power can rally those workers and save the labor movement from marginality. Not even electing a president can substitute for a determined drive to organize the unorganized and re-organize the organized to begin squeezing concessions from management.

If labor's only goal is a Mondale victory in November, labor could well lose two ways, first through a Mondale defeat and second, through continued setbacks in organizing and bargaining. If, on the other hand, it approaches the campaign as an opportunity to renew membership involvement, the labor movement can go on the offensive and begin to reverse the decline of the last decade.