The dilemma organized labor has in endorsing a 1988 presidential candidate was summarized by the experience of one large international union, an official said at the meeting of the AFL-CIO Political Works Committee last week: 67 percent of its members want to endorse a candidate, but no candidate of either party registered even 10 percent in a preference poll of the union's members.

An AFL-CIO endorsement soon seems to be an impossible dream. All seven Democratic candidates are generally acceptable to union members, but none is well enough known to be a clear favorite as was Walter F. Mondale in 1984, when the federation made its first such endorsement. Endorsement requires a two-thirds majority of the AFL-CIO membership.

"We couldn't get a two-thirds majority on our executive committee," said the political director of one of the federation's largest member unions.

AFL-CIO leaders have not given up the hope that somehow their membership will coalesce behind a candidate sometime in the next six months, but because it is unlikely they have been considering alternative plans.

The Political Works Committee (PWC), composed of the leaders of 17 of the AFL-CIO's largest unions, will propose to the AFL-CIO Executive Council at its meeting next week that it delay an endorsement. The endorsement matter also will be on the agenda of the federation's national convention in October.

"We hope we have a program worked out by then," said Sam Dawson, political director of the United Steelworkers of America.

Although AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland can convene the federation's General Board to make an endorsement at any time, any delayed endorsement most likely would come after the New Hampshire Democratic primary on Feb. 16, when the field presumably will have been winnowed down, and before "Super Tuesday" on March 8, when about 20 states will hold their primaries and choose about half the delegates of both parties.

The PWC has also discussed endorsing more than one candidate, changing the endorsement requirement to a simple majority and allowing unions from the candidates' home states, such as Massachusetts, Illinois or Missouri, to endorse their local favorite.

The first two have been rejected and there is a lot of resistance to the "home state" proposal, according to PWC member union political directors.

"You could have the members in Tennessee endorse {Sen. Albert} Gore {Jr.}, but the regional officers work out of Atlanta and they might be for someone else," said a spokesman for the Communications Workers of America.

Because of their wish that labor speak with one voice as it did in 1984, there is no sign of any AFL-CIO union being tempted to make an independent endorsement, according to PWC political directors.

Support for a delayed endorsement among the AFL-CIO unions ranges from reasonable enthusiasm to the feeling that it is the "least unsatisfactory" of the alternatives the AFL-CIO has been considering, according to members of the PWC.

"No one likes the idea of sitting out Iowa and New Hampshire, but we don't have any real problem with it," said the steelworkers' Dawson. "Our first priorities are to keep unity within the house of labor and to get as many delegates to the {Democratic national} convention as possible."

There could be problems with a late endorsement, according to Dawson and other union political directors. Filing deadlines for delegate candidates in many of the "Super Tuesday" states are in January, well before the New Hampshire primary.

"We could have individual members already slotted as delegates for the other candidates, and if there's a late endorsement, they'd be out on their own and not have the union resources behind them," Dawson said. "It also pits union member against union member. But nothing's ever simple, is it?"

"There'll probably be three or four Democratic candidates after New Hampshire," said Jerry Clark, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We think an endorsement before it's too late to mean anything isn't very likely."

That's because "our members don't have negative feelings about any of the Democrats. We're a cross-section of the country," another political director said.

An AFSCME poll of its membership in early June showed that 43 percent did not know whom they preferred and that except for Jesse L. Jackson, who was the choice of about 25 percent, no candidate was the choice of as many as 20 percent, according to Clark.

Other political directors say their membership polls are similar and reflect the national polls -- in which only Jackson is the choice of more than 10 percent of Democrats.