'Three-quarters, or maybe 80 percent of it, has been orchestrated, and most of it can be traced back here. You can always tell by your mail whenever an information directive has gone out from Washington.'

Sen Dale Bumpers

A labor union official turned up at the office of Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) bearing shoe boxes filled with 8,700 postcards backing the administration's labor law revision bill. He offered more if the senator wanted them.

A Chicago businessman, calling to tell a Bumpers aide why he opposed the bill, tried to establish his Arkansas credentials by saying he had a plant somewhere in the state. He couldn't remember exactly where.

At one point, the issue was generating 1,000 cards and letters a day, hourly phone calls and a steady stream of telegrams, some identical to the last misspelled word (as in "Stick by Your Principals!").

For people outside the immediate business and labor communities, revision of the nation's labor laws might not rank as the burning issue of the day, but it has triggered one of the fiercest lobbying cars Congress has seen: "grass-roots" lobbying in full flower.

Just ask Bumpers, who's caught in the middle.

Bumpers is one of a dozen uncommitted senators whom both sides are courting relentlessly for the coming series of cloture votes to cut off the 2-week-old bilibuster against the labor bill, a White House-drafted measure that would generally make it more difficult for employers to block their workers from unionizing and negotiating a contract.

Bumpers has expressed strong reservations about some aspects of the bill, such as deadlines of 30 to 75 days for holding union representations elections, but has an unbroken record of opposing all filibusters. He is a freshman senator from a strong "right-to-work" state who had both union and business backing in his 1974 election.

So far, he's not said how he'll vote. Friends in both camps say the pressure has been "tremendous," especially from business, and agree that Bumpers has been deeply troubled by the issue.

But Bumpers is also troubled by the lobbying, which at one point threatened to paralyze his office operations by the sheer volume of mail it generated.

"If a company president writes and says what it would do to him, that has impact," said Bumpers the other day. "But, in all candor, it's not very instructive, or very effective, to get a thousand of the same postcards."

While most of the thousands of messages Bumpers has received on the issue over the past few months have come from Arkansas people, much of this "grass-roots lobbying almost invariably stretches back to Washington.

"Three-quarters, or maybe 80 per cent of it,has been orchestrated," said Bumpers, "and most of it can be traced back here.You can always tell by your mail whenever an information directive has gone out from Washington.

Massive grass-roots lobbying is a relatively recent phenomenon that deemphasizes paid lobbyists in favor of organized campaigns to get constituents to lobby a lawmaker through mail and telegrams, phone calls and personal contact. To generate this, Washington-based groups often use computerized mailings and other sophisticated techniques.

The House voted recently to require lobbying organizations to disclose their spending on grass-roots activities, and hearings are under way on other aspects of lobbying's new growth industry.

Grass-roots lobbying may lend an appearance of a spontaneious groundswell but it's not cheap, with estimates of the cost of labor law lobbying going as high as $8 million.

One reason for the enormous investment of time, money and rhetoric is that the labor bill has assumed a symbolic and political importance transcending the likely impact of its provisions, which Bumpers, among others, suggests have been minimized by labor and exaggerated by business.

AFL-CIO President George Meany has called it a "holy war," and business groups have suggested that "freedom" is at stake. To the extent that the appearance of power is important, the stakes are considerable, with repercussions for industrial relations as well as politics and legislation. "It's our macho vs. their macho," said one lobbyist who says the fight has gone beyond reasonable bounds.

One example of the links between Washington and the grass roots is an econofic impact study done by consultant Pierre Rinfret for a business coalition that is opposing the bill. The study forecast that the bill would produce higher inflation on grounds that it would encourage union organizing and thus higher wages. The study was released for national consumption in Washington, along with spin off studies for states such as Arkansas that are coincidentally represented by swing senators. They have made the Washington-to-Arkansas-to-Washington circuit, landing in Bumpers' office.

Similarly, mass mailings from both the AFL-CLO and the National Right to Work Committe are generated out of Washington, although they qualify as grass-roots lobbying by virtue of where they're signed.

As Bumpers recalls it, the deluge of postcards generated by computerized mass mailings from the Right to Work Committee, coupled with local newspaper advertisements by the committee, prompted the unions to respond in kind.

"Labor felt senators were impressed by the volume of mail they were getting, so they felt they had to generate a like volume," Bumpers said. That was when the Arkansas union man arrived with the shoe boxes filled with cards.

The Right to Work Committee estimates it has sent out 12 million pieces of mail since December, including about 50,000 to Arkansas, roughly one for every four persons in the state. Two committee officials, Carter Clews and Lee Edwards, paid personal visits to the editors of major Arkansas newspapers, with results sufficiently encouraging that they plan to return to the state this week for a final editorial nudge before the cloture vote.

The committee sent out so many postcards in its mailing earlier this year that it exhausted the entire East Coast supply of a particular stock of postcard paper and had to switch temporarily, Clews notes with pride.

By no means has all of the response been of the pushbutton variety, however, even though it may have been inspired initally by lobbying rockets out of Washington.

On occasions when Bumpers has gone home to Arkansas since the lobbying began in earnest after the House approved the bill late last year, nine of 10 people who've come to talk to him have had the labor bill on their minds.

The business community, from the high-powered Business Roundtable of top corporate executives to various associations of small businesses, has been increasingly urging affilated members to make personal visits and phone calls. Similarly, organized labor has concentrated on a "victims' vigil" that includes lobbying of senators by home-state workers who claim they were denied rights that the bill would help guarantee.

For instance, Bumpers recently received individuals visits from most directors of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, who had come to town for a dinner and a little friendly talk with their senators. Some of labor's "victims" are planning to see him back in Arkansas during the Memorial Day recess.

All of this may have been generated in Washington, but "at least the computers are wearing a human face," said one senatorial aide.

If the orchestration is wearing thin, especially among independent minded senators like Bumpers, why does it keep on? "Maybe they're just afraid to stop," said Martha Jones, a Bumpers legislative aide.