Big Labor is learning a new lingo. Although a lot of folks still stereotype union leaders as a bunch of "dese and dose boys," they're suddenly talking "persuasion indexes" and "test messaging" and "satellite teleconferences," going high-tech in a historic communications battle for the hearts and minds of working people.

A key engineer of the change is a former carpenter from Indiana named John Perkins, who has the physical presence of a skyscraper. Before long, he will also have the political presence of a skyscraper because as successor to Alexander Barkan he is the new director of the Committee on Political Education (COPE), the political arm of the AFL-CIO, which is beginning a high-stakes attempt to have an unprecedented impact on the coming political wars.

Known to political pros as a savvy, behind-the-scenes, "nuts and bolts guy," Perkins, 49, is drawing praise for his skill in ushering organized labor's crusty political machinery into the age of direct-mail appeals, polling and other modern techniques. He is changing the style if not the goals of a hidebound institution.

Perkins is "pulling the progressive forces into the Twentieth Century. . . . He's going to do in two years what the right wing took 10 years to do," says Leon Billings, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "There's no one I've met who's as on top of all this as Perkins."

"We want to develop skills comparable to the pros," Perkins says. "This is a long process. It's just becoming successful. . . . It's something that management does quite effectively with supervisors and stockholders."

"Night and day, night and day," says one veteran building trades official, describing with approval the difference between the new COPE and the old.

"I think somewhere along the line during the 1970s, labor forgot they have 15 million members and that this is their greatest resource," says Philip Sparks, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes (AFCSME). Perkins, he concludes, understands this.

Labor federation president Lane Kirkland appointed the 6-foot-5 Perkins as COPE director last January when Barkan retired.

Father of seven including twin daughters, married 30 years, Perkins dropped out of college after a year to take a construction job. He has spent about 13 years quietly working his way up through the ranks at COPE, starting at the state level in Indiana.

He was credited with organizing the labor federation's most successful public relations extravaganza in recent memory -- last year's mass "Solidarity Day" rally conceived by Kirkland to counter charges that labor leaders had lost touch with their rank and file. It delivered 200,000 diverse, banner-waving unionists and civil rights groups to the Mall to protest the effects of Reaganomics on working people.

Barkan was a wily, back-slapping, center-stage labor evangelist and the last of the old-guard lieutenants of the late George Meany.

"Al Barkan attempted to go out and inspire and motivate people. It was a call to action," says John S. (Whitey) Rogers, general secretary of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Perkins' union.

"Perkins says, yes, go out and motivate, but he puts a lot more accent on services -- what can COPE do to make the effort more effective? -- and on more aggressive fund-raising."

On behalf of Meany, Barkan stood fast against the anti-establishment currents of the 1960s and 1970s.

He railed against those he called the disciples of the three A's -- acid, amnesty and abortion -- that were capturing the Democratic Party. He represented the traditional segment of labor that has never been comfortable dealing with the burgeoning stew of interest groups that make up the Democratic Party, and which mutters, as one labor official put it, about "black ingrates," and "pansies" and "those women yelling about the equal rights amendment over in Lafayette Park." "I think somewhere along the line during the 1970s, labor forgot they have 15 million members and that this is their greatest resource," says Philip Sparks, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes.

Barkan was convinced that the entanglement of labor's liberal wing with divisive social issues such as abortion and ERA diluted its political effectiveness and that its alliances with women and minorities alienated mainstream labor constituencies.

There are still plenty of unionists who feel that way. But Perkins, attuned to the practicalities of coalition-building, has shown that he can move gracefully from the inner councils of mainstream union bosses to an appearance, in reciprocation for a political favor, at a banquet of the Gertrude Stein Society of lesbians.

And at least for the time being, these divisive issues appear to be submerged by common, bread-and-butter concerns.

"Reagan has brought labor home," Perkins says. "Single-interest groups will have less impact in 1982. Economic issues will be the overriding concern. . . . A very diversified group of coalitions and organizations is getting hurt by economics."

The retooling of COPE comes at a time when the labor movement is struggling to regain its political clout, sweeten a somewhat soured image and adapt to a rapidly changing labor market. Its relations with the White House are the worst since the Great Depression.

In today's economy, unions are shifting increasingly from the bargaining table to legislation and political activity to solve their problems.

The AFL-CIO's comeback strategy includes a controversial and very iffy plan to try, for the first time ever, to endorse a presidential candidate and throw its prestige and resources behind him before the first primaries and caucuses of 1984. This symbolizes its current, unprecedented partisan support of the Democratic Party -- after about a decade of strain and estrangement -- in which it has contributed about 20 percent of the party's total funds, as well as providing other resources.

In its effort to regather its fragmented forces, which were badly split during the Carter years, the federation belatedly has joined the communications revolution. Recent AFL-CIO internal memos and seminar papers describe the "need for countering right wing and corporate PAC attacks," and the fact that "today, union leadership competes with television and newspapers which come directly into union members' homes each day" and also with "direct mail" from across the ideological spectrum.

The COPE initiatives, as described by Perkins and others, include:

* More "personal" communication with union members. In direct-mail appeals, for example, instead of all unions receiving the same letter in the mail as in the past, the mailings in selected areas will address recipients by name (not "Dear Member"). COPE's political operatives will be able to "target the appeal so it is tailored to meet the interests of the electrical worker in the Midwest," or more specifically, the electrical worker who is between 21 and 35 years of age, is married, has been a union member for less than five years and resides in the northwestern portion of Indiana.

In its first use of the new direct-mail capability -- a grass-roots congressional lobbying effort against a bill that would stiffen the penalties for picket line violence, which it has succeeded in blocking -- the AFL-CIO reports a response rate averaging close to 10 percent.

This is "an astounding five times higher than the best mailing that [Richard] Viguerie and any other direct-mail outfit could muster," according to a written evaluation. "Some unions have a response rate in the 15 to 20 percent range."

One senator received more than 10,000 cards from union members compared with less than 1,000 from right-to-work (antiunion) mailings, according to the AFL-CIO tally.

* The federation's expanded computer capacity will be used to help neighborhood canvassers in registration and get-out-the-vote operations by showing them where to target their efforts, based on past election statistics. For example, it will show the precincts in Eau Claire, Wis., whose "persuasion index" is over 20 percent, meaning that their past voting records indicate they are ticket splitters, or defectors or otherwise susceptible to swing voting.

* COPE is developing its own in-house polling, with eight or 10 statewide surveys scheduled for this year. It will be able to "test its messages," to learn the concerns of members, which issues to stress, which groups are most responsive. COPE staffers have been taking lessons from pollster Peter Hart.

* COPE is establishing a data bank that will be available to affiliated unions. It will look up phone numbers electronically and address envelopes by computer, freeing the field troops for other work. Expanded phone bank operations and voter registration assistance are on the agenda. An increasing number of unions are enlisting their retired members as political foot soldiers.

* In addition, the AFL-CIO has a new Public Affairs Institute, which technically is nonpolitical but is designed to get labor's story to the public, improve its image, and make better use of television.

Kirkland is among the labor officials who have gone to "television school," learning how to appear more effectively and more often on television. The experts reportedly told him, among other things, to stop smoking a cigarette in a holder while on camera and to give shorter answers.

Once the grass-roots union troops see some tangible effects of COPE services, the expectation is that Perkins will also be able to "pick up the slack" in COPE's fund-raising efforts, the Carpenters' Rogers said.

In the past, some of the more progressive unions refused to contribute to COPE. Under Perkins, COPE has a built-in commitment from all its affiliates to pay regular assessments.

COPE also is showing results from its recent push to get unions to negotiate voluntary payroll deductions for the "COPE checkoff," authorizing an employer to deduct funds from union members' paychecks for the union's political action committee. As a result, a number of international unions can now get as much from one local as they had previously from an entire state or region, Perkins says.

For this fall's campaigns, with about $800,000 to spend, COPE will concentrate the bulk of its resources on marginal districts in eight or 10 states, Perkins said.

Asked about labor's ability to "deliver" a vote, he said, "Those days are gone. The best job we can do is to educate our members in their own self-interest, and to get them to participate. Chances are they'll vote for our candidate."