The AFL-CIO breathed a little fresh air into the labor movement at its biennial convention in southern California last week, and yet some stale old cigar smoke lingered in the convention hall because change does not come easily to Big Labor.

The 16th convention of the AFL-CIO, marking the 30th anniversary of the merger of the older, more conservative American Federation of Labor and the newer, more militant Congress of Industrial Organizations, was significant for what it accomplished and what it did not.

The 13 million-member federation created a new form of "associate" union membership offering group insurance and other benefits designed to attract new blood; it showed off new video and high-tech weapons -- such as TV spots and satellite-fed news conferences -- for combating corporate adversaries; it conducted an unusually bold and open debate on foreign policy, and it opened the door a little wider to minority workers by adding a third black vice president to its 35-member ruling executive council.

But the top brass kept its door more tightly closed to women (who represent the fastest-growing sector of the work force) by naming four males to fill executive vacancies. And a strong bid to add a fourth black vice president was turned down.

The absence of a woman and the bypassing of three leading black candidates contradicted the federation's frequently stated goals of broadening its appeal and better representing the interests of women and minorities, who often work under the roughest conditions, receiving the lowest pay, and therefore are most prone to unionize.

Like other institutions promoting affirmative action, however, the AFL-CIO ran head-on into the vested interests, internal rivalries and seniority principles that have barred newcomers in many fields. In this case, the oldest and generally most conservative elements -- the AFL building trades and the maritime unions -- retained a disproportionate share of AFL-CIO leadership once the deals were reached off the convention floor at the Anaheim Hilton.

Individual unions are making strides in recruiting and promoting women and minorities, but for the larger federation the key word was "solidarity." Nobody openly opposed adding women and minorities to the nation's top labor-union posts; it's just that they thought there wasn't enough room among the ranks of the old guard. Newcomers were told to wait until next time.

Women, who comprise roughly 43 percent of the work force and 30 percent of union membership, have only two slots among the 35 AFL-CIO executives, 6 percent. While women have reached leadership levels among local unions, there is only one female president among the 96 AFL-CIO unions: Linda A. Puchala of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Blacks make up about 10 percent of the work force and 20 percent of union membership, but have only three AFL-CIO executive seats, 9 percent.

Labor's high command has two members in their 80s, and most are in their 50s and 60s, putting some of them out of touch with the concerns of younger workers.

If AFL-CIO membership were reflected on the 35-member board, there would be 11 women and 7 blacks. Instead there is one white woman, one black woman and two black men. The predominantly white construction and maritime trades, which are declining in membership, retained nine seats -- or 26 percent -- while their percentage of federation membership is about 15 percent.

With 96 unions, competition can be fierce for executive slots. The late George Meany once dictated such decisions. But in 1980, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland arranged for a rule change that opened slots to nonpresidents, enabling the first women to be elected -- Joyce Miller, vice president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, and Barbara Hutchinson, head of the women's department of the American Federation of Government Employees.

With four openings created by retirements, Kirkland lobbied strongly behind the scenes on behalf of Puchala. But she encountered opposition from the Air Line Pilots Association, which didn't want an attendant getting on board before a pilot.

Since two retirees were from building trade unions, those unions demanded and won the election of Larry Dugan of the Operating Engineers and Robert A. Georgine, even though Georgine, as head of the AFL-CIO building trades department, is not a union officer. Milan Stone, president of the 106,000-member United Rubber Workers, was elected to a third opening.

For the fourth vacancy, a substantial number of top union officials, white and black, promoted the candidacies of three highly regarded black veterans who have reached union vice presidencies -- William Lucy of the rapidly growing American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Leon Lynch of the United Steel Workers, and Marc Stepp of the United Auto Workers.

But the "black slot" went to a relative newcomer with a high-profile advantage: former professional football star Gene Upshaw of the Oakland Raiders.

Upshaw drew widespread praise here for his leadership of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Federation of Professional Athletes, representing about 3,000 football and soccer players. But the election of Upshaw prompted charges of tokenism because AFL-CIO leaders bypassed three more experienced black candidates representing unions with more than 2.5 million members.