Despite the AFL-CIO's continual feuding with the Carter administration, the Republicans have virtually no chance of winning the huge labor federation's support in next year's presidential race, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Lane Kirkland said today.
It would take a Biblical-scale change of views equivalent to a "conversion on the road to Damascus" for any of the prospective Republican candidates to win organized labor's backing next year, Kirkland told reporters.
While Kirkland said it is "too iffy" to say the AFL-CIO will endores Carter, many union leaders attending the federation's mid-winter Executive Council meeting here say they are reluctant to sit out the election, as the AFL-CIO did in the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race.
Acknowledging that the federation may well wind up endorsing Carter if he wins the Democratic nomination for a second term, Kirkland told reporters that "the real problem would be the intensity of support" that could be rallied for the president among rank-and-life unionists.
As of now, he said, enthusiasm for Carter is not high in union ranks.
Although the AFL-CIO normally sits out presidential nomination fights and then endorses the Democratic nominee, individual unions often get deeply involved in primary fights, and some AFL-CIO unions were instrumental in rounding up delegates for Carter in crucial state contests early in 1976.
Among possible challengers to Carter, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has strong support within the labor movement, but many AFL-CIO union leaders don't expect him to run. Kirkland said there is little enthusiasm for California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., and many union leaders say he killed his chances with labor when he endorsed a constitutional convention to ban federal budget deficits and made other gestures to conservative voters.
As for supporting any of the prominently mentioned Republican challengers, specifically including Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, John Connally or Howard Baker, Kirkland said, "I don't think so. The AFL-CIO would "have to look at the totality of their records... and I would guess that, on that basis, unless there was a conversion on the road to Damascus, it would be hard to find a basis for it [a Republican endorsement]."
Kirkland, who is expected to succeed AFL-CIO president George Meany, said he sees no justification for suggestions from at least two AFL-CIO executive council members for Meany to tone down his criticism of Carter. He said Meany has been criticizing every president back to Harry Truman and has good reason for criticizing the current chief executive.
Kirkland also discounted speculation that Meany may retire this year, saying he has "no reason" to believe that such a step is imminent. He said he plans to run again for the number two job at the federation's biennual convention next November.
Meanwhile the executive council was told that the voter turnout by union members hit an all-time low in the 1978 congressional elections, amounting to only 50 percent of eligible voters who belong to unions, as compared to a turnout of 60 percent in the 1976 elections. AFL-CIO spokesman Albert J. Zack said the council is considering commissioning a poll to find out from union members whether the AFL-CIO is missing some issues that are of concern to them.