The Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, in what many of its members regard as a long-overdue "emergency meeting," is gathering here this week in an attempt to stave off a wholesale slaughter of some of organized labor's sacred cows.
Included in that heretofore protected herd -- all targeted by the Reagan administration for substantial cutbacks in its attempt to reduce the federal deficit -- are $11 billion worth of public works and federal job training programs, extended unemployment insurance benefits and the controversial trade adjustment assistance-benefits paid to workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign invasion of a domestic industrial market.
The sessions at the regular midwinter gathering of the federation's top leadership are likely to be heavily focused on strategy for resisting those cuts, but there will be a host of other issues competing for the time and attention of the council, including the revitalization of its political machinery.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland has called for the federation to abandon its tradition of political neutrality in future presidential primaries, but he has conceded that ending the policy may not be easy, for the same reason it started in the first place -- the relative difficulty in getting union leaders to agree on a candidate in a race in which two or more "acceptable candidates" are competing for labor support.
But Kirkland believes that the council must take some action on the matter of political primary endorsements if the federation is to start a credible campaign of selling the new position to the general membership.
This year's meeting -- an event often dominated by progressive rhetoric, suntan lotion and good liquor -- is marked even at the outset by a sense of urgency and an element of discord, largely because of the political drubbing organized labor took at the polls last November.
The AFL-CIO leadership's efforts on behalf of President Carter were buried beneath a conservative Republican avalanche that also carried off nearly 44 percent of the union vote.
Much of the criticism circulating here specifically cities Kirkland, on the job for 16 months, for allegedly moving too slowly to put the 13.6 million-member federation on a more militant footing.
Discontent over increasing industrial layoffs and growing corporate demand that unions give back some of the wages and benefits won in good times also figures in the uneasiness here.
But perhaps the most troubling problem is the one some labor leaders here say has been caused by the unions themselves. That is, rather than coming together in bad times to fight designated foes and to expand their share of the workforce, the critics say, too many unions have adopted a lifeboat mentality and are busily pushing their brethren overboard in a desperate attempt to save themselves.
"Lane is a nice guy and nobody really likes to attack him," said another union official, commenting on Kirkland. "But if he is aware of all of these problems, he doesn't seem to be doing much about them."
Kirkland usually does not respond to personal attacks, and there is little reason to think that he will do so here. His supporters, however, rise to his defense, saying that he should be credited with pushing for the reaffiliation with the AFL-CIO of the 2.3-million-member Teamsters Union, the nation's largest, and also for encouraging the troubled United Auto Workers to rejoin the fold. Both planned reunions are to be discussed here this week, and UAW President Douglas Fraser will be in attendance.
But the impending budget cuts in social and labor programs will likely be the key issues. And, in a burst of political savvy or a recognition of what Washington popularly calls "the new reality," the federation's leadership has invited key Republicans to speak on those cuts. Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) will meet privately with the Executive Council Monday morning, and White House chief of staff Edwin Meese III is expected to attend later in the week.
Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who came to office with little national labor experience, is to meet with the federation's leaders Wednesday, and Special Trade Representative Bill Brock is tentatively scheduled to meet with the council Tuesday, when the subject of discussion is expected to be the AFL-CIO's allegations of unfair foreign trade practices.