With much public soul searching, a group of labor leaders, disillusioned first major effort to draft Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

The labor leaders, and a handful of other activists who joined the effort, freely admitted a Kennedy for president movement in currently little more than a pipe dream.

Kennedy, they told one another, is doing everything he can to avoid challenging President Carter. "We're going to have to play real hardball," said one spokesman, Mat Wanning. "if Teddy Kennedy is going to run, he's going to run because we make him run."

The group announced it would collect funds and hold a series of meetings in each of Iowa;s six congressional districts to help elect Kennedy delegates when the state's precinct caucuses meet next January-the first step in the nation toward election of convention delegates.

Technically, the group will be known as "the Exploratory Committee for a Democratic Alternative." But spokesmen left little doubt that Kennedy was the only alternative they were interested in explorring.

"I understand an organizer for [California Gov. Edmund G.] Jerry Brown is in Iowa this weekend." said Ted Anderson, a local United auis weekend." said Ted Anderson, a local United Auto Workers officer from Waterloo. "I've got news for Gov. Brown. That's one guy I'm not going to be for."

"i suggest we put Jerry Brown and Bob Ray [Iowa's Republican governor] on the same damn ticket so we can keep them both out." declared an other labor leader.

The Brown scout, Richard Muprhy, a political operative for the Postal Clerks Union in Washington, said he wasn't taken back by the anti-Brown feelings.

"i don't blame them for what said. They don't know his labor record," Murphy said. "i'm going to advise him that he ought to come to Iowa and let the people get to know him."

The group organized here is the most politically potent in a series of draft-Kennedy efforts that have sprung up around the country in recent months. The Kennedy group was organized in the state that gave Center, then a relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, his first big push on the way to the White House in 1976. And it came on a day that President Carter, heady with success of his recent Midest peace efforts, was appearing in the neighboring midwestern state of Wisconsin.

The anti-Carter sentiment here was deep and broad-bases. "President Carter lied to us," said Max Tipton, a local UAW PRESIDENT WHO SAID HE HAD BEEN AN EARLY CARTER SUPPORTER. "HE IS NOT INTODUCING THE KIND OF LEGISLATION HE PROMIDED IN 1976."

ARTHUR HEEDBERG, A LONGTIME KENNEDY SUPPORTER, TOOK ANOTHER TACK. "I'M NOT ALL THAT DISSATISFIED WITH JIMMY CARTER," HE SAID. "BUT WHY NOT THE BEST? AND WHO IS THE BEST? WE KNOW IT'S TEDDY KENNEDY."

IN NUMBERS, THE GROUP HERE IS NOT LARGE-142 PERSONS FILLED OUT SIGN-UP CARDS AND THEY COULD RAISE ONLY $263 TO GET THE CAMPAIGN UNDER WAY. STATE LEADERS OF TWO POLITICALLY POTENT UNIONS-THE AUTO WORKERS AND THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF STATE, COUNTY, AND MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES-ATTENDED MORE AS NEUTRAL OBSERVERS THAN PARTICIPATNS.

BUT THE GROUP INCLUDED THE LEADERSHIP OF THE IOWA FEDERATION OF LABOR, THE MACHINISTS UNION WHICH ORGANIZED THE MEETING AND LOCAL UNION OFFICIALS REPRESENTING MEATCUTTERS, RUBBER WORKERS, AUTOWORKERS, AND GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES.

THE MOST IMPORTANT DEFECTION FROM THE GROUP WAS CHARLES GIFFORD, THE AUTO WORKERS' POLITICAL CHIEFTAIN IN IOWA AND AN EARLY CARTER BACKER. GIFFORD, WHO HAD BECOME DISILLUSIONED WITH CARTER, INITIALLY WAS AN ORGANIZER OF THE MEETING BUT HAD TO BACK OUT WHEN THE NATIONAL UNION TOLD HIM THAT IT WAS NEUTRAL.

HE ATTENDED TODAY NONETHELESS, CLAIMING TO BE AN UNABASHED KENNEDY SUPPORTER. "I WAS A JOHN KENNEDY SUPPORTER IN 1960. I WAS A BOBBY KENNEDY SUPPORTER IN 1968 AND I WOULD HAVE MARRIED JACKIE KENNEDY IF SHE HADN'T MARRIED ONASSIS FIRST."

BUT GIFFORD WARNED THAT IT IS UNLIKELY THAT SEN. KENNEDY WILL RUN IN 1980 AND THAT THE DRAFT-KENNEDY MOVEMENT MAY DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD TO LABOR.