Labor unions are gathering behind President Carter's plan for "reindustrialization" as a step in the right direction to restore the country's economic health -- and to create new jobs.
The Carter goal of expanding employment in basic industries would help shore up plants and areas where unions once had their greatest strength. During the past few years, heavy layoffs have cost unions more than 500,000 active members in steel, auto, transportation, construction, and other fields that once were the nucleus of blue-collar union membership.
Unions are still growing. Figures indicate a gain of 2 million members in the 1970s. However, this increase -- largely in ranks of government employees, teachers, and workers in the service trades -- was not enough to keep up with the more sharply rising total labor force. The percentages of workers in unions continued to slip. Today only about 28 percent of those eligible actually are in unions.
Under these circumstances, the executive council of the AFL-CIO, meeting in Chicago last month, called on the government to take the lead in developing a partnership with labor and industry "to design and implement a comprehensive reindustrialization program."
The council warned that the country is slipping closer to a service-dominated economy and that the creation of new or modernized production capacity is critically needed in many industries.
The council added: "The effort must include a broad spectrum of industrial activities so that America will have a diversified industrial capacity to meet its basic needs and to protect the security of the nation."
Mr. Carter, briefed on the AFL-CIO proposal, incorporated the idea of the tripartite Economic Revitalization Board into his broad program of tax relief, extended unemployment aid, business investment inducements, and money for mass transit and job-creating projects. The President named as cochairmen of the board AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and Irving S. Shapiro, chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
The board is expected to begin functioning within a month. One of its first assignments will be to outline an industrial development plan that Carter can present to Congress in January -- if he is re-elected.
While the AFL-CIO considers Carter's overall program to be "more modest" than labor would have liked, it is willing to go along with it. The new board, according to Mr. Kirkland, is "the most innovative part" of the program.
Douglas Fraser, president of the United Automobile Workers, who probably will be one of six labor representatives on the board, considers it "the most imaginative segment of this new economic initative . . . a positive step toward putting America back to work."
However, there are perils as well as reasons for hope among union leaders in supporting the new board and Carter's program as a whole. They are counting on reduced unemployment and generally improved conditions for workers -- their union constituents. But if -- after union leaders back Carter for re-election and support his economic plan -- unemployment remains high and inflation and taxes continue to be a problem, they may find rank-and-file opposition rising against them as heatedly as it has against the President.