The AFL-CIO, which represents 13.8 million union members, is pledging "constructive efforts" to help a Reagan administration that it strongly opposed solve the nation's "many serious problems."
Federation president Lane Kirkland, although "disappointed" with the Nov. 4 election results, quickly reassured President-elect Reagan of labor's support after his landslide victory. Generally, other labor leaders are joining in this pledge to work with the Reagan administration in 1981 as long as programs to rebuild the nation's industrial base "assure fairness and equity for American workers."
The quick moves to open lines of communication with a Reagan White House reflect labor's wariness of the conservativism in the new Congress: Unions are more afraid of the Congress than of Mr. Reagan. They lost a number of good friends and allies in the Senate and House; and the GOP takeover in the Senate will strip Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D) of New Jersey, a dependable labor supporter, of his important Labor Committee chairmanship.
With Republicans in control of the Senate and the House Democratic majority much slimmer than before, union leaders expect legislative problems in the next session. Labor-sought measures -- including national health insurance and a law to protect workers in plant closings -- appear doomed unless Reagan, as president, puts his power behind such proposed labor legislation.
Beyond that, unions fear they will be forced onto the defensive in Congress as business conservatives press labor-law "reforms" that would reduce labor organizing and bargaining powers and weaken enforcement of occupational health and safety laws.
Howard Samuel, president of AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department, said in Washington last week that unions must "fear the worst" after conservatives take their congressional seats in January. He predicted that labor's foes will try to "reform us out of business."
There is little doubt that life will be harder for organized labor in Washington in the years just ahead, but, as one labor lobbyist put it, "Relations with this Congress haven't been very good -- we haven't lost anything , but we haven't made appreciable progress toward the legislative goals we set in 1976 and 1978."
Before its intensive campaigning for Jimmy Carter's re-election, labor blamed the President's lack of influence over Congress for many of what it considered that body's shortcomings. Underlying some of labor's cautious peace overtures to Reagan is the belief that he can be more effective than Mr. Carter has been in relations with Congress.
Stephen Schlossberg, director of government affairs for the United Automobile Workers, said Reagan, the former president of the screen actors' union in Hollywood, "understands unions and knows the problems of working people.
Looking ahead to 1982 and 1984 elections, AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) says the Republican sweep this year should not be interpreted as a lasting shift in alignment. COPE expects that the traditional Democratic and labor ethnic blocs that voted for the GOP Nov. 4 will be back in the liberal ranks in coming elections.