Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan circulated on the periphery of the AFL-CIO gathering here today while the chiefs of organized labor met privately to refine plans to defeat Donovan and his boss in 1984.
Addressing a friendly crowd of New York building trades officials, Donovan said that the Reagan administration shares some but not all of the blame for the pain of soaring unemployment.
But he predicted that the construction industry will lead the way out of the recession and that blue-collar support will return to the president.
Donovan, under pressure to prove he can be a political asset to the administration, came to the winter meeting of the labor federation's ruling council even though he had not been invited by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland.
He met with officials of the longshoreman's union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union as well as officials of the building trades.
"When the building trades talk, Ray Donovan listens," he said. He acknowledged that "we don't always agree," but he asked that lines of communication be kept open.
He got a standing ovation afterward, and was presented with a construction workers' T-shirt.
AFL-CIO spokesman Murray Seeger had said earlier of Donovan's round of activities here, "As far as we're concerned, he's just another tourist."
Officials of the unions that hosted Donovan said they had maintained their relationship at a working level with Donovan and other Labor Department officials, despite the high-level chill.
"Lane knows I've been talking to Donovan about a program for dislocated workers," said William H. Wynn, president of the huge United Food and Commercial Workers Union. "The labor department has been very helpful."
He termed his relationship with Kirkland as "polite, getting warmer . . . . We're having lunch together in March."
Meanwhile, the federation's political director, John Perkins, reported to the executive council today. He said among other things that federal campaign spending by labor groups had gone up by 91 percent since 1978, to a total of $35.8 million during the 1982 campaign cycle.
Business groups during the same period increased spending by an even greater 119 percent, he reported.
Although labor is trailing in raising and spending money, Seeger said, it competes favorably in terms of shoe leather. About 41 percent of the Democratic vote and 26 percent of the Republican vote last November came from labor households, he said.
Union families "vote at least 10 percent higher than the general population," he said.
If labor's leaders become fully engaged politically, they could mobilize 420,000 volunteers, the political research showed.
The ruling council likely will not decide until later this year whether to move up its scheduled December pre-primary endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate to October, Seeger said.
By the end of this week, the group expects to issue guidelines for international union leaders whose local political activists are pressuring them to get started in supporting various presidential candidates.