Union leaders are looking ahead to the AFL-CIO's biennial convention in New York in mid-November as a highly important, perhaps critical, next step in their campaign against Reagan administration policies.
Labor's "solidarity day" rally in Washington Sept. 19, a spectacular success in the minds of union leaders, brought a quarter of a million workers together for a massive demonstration against budget cuts, tight money, and other policies intended to slow down the economy and ease inflation.
"They've been saying that we couldn't bring together our rank and file to support our leadership," one organizer of the meticulously planned demonstration said. He added, "We've shown them that we can."
Now the AFL-CIO faces what could be an even tougher job. Having denounced the Reagan program and perhaps undercut political support for it, the federation must advance an alternative "people's program" that can win broad support from union workers, the public, and politicians -- particularly those in the Democratic Party.
One AFL-CIO union executive, showing a wariness of solidarity day, said this week, "We dropped one shoe in Washington. We'll drop the other in New York. We took a negative stand on the [capital's] Mall. We now have to take a good, solid positive step in the Big Apple."
Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the union that turned out the most demonstrators from outside Washington, put the AFL-CIO's problem more bluntly.
"The impressive turnout is no guarantee that our task will succeed -- it was only the beginning of a long, difficult, frustrating process to turn the country around," Mr. Wurf said.
The federation advanced an economic program during the last year of the Carter administration and reaffirmed it during the last eight months. The program proposed increased public spending, lower interest rates, and other policies intended to stimulate the economy, encourage business and industrial activity, and create jobs -- and in the long run lower inflation rates. AFL-CIO's basic theory is that a thriving economy would relieve inflationary pressures.
The federation advocated this program in urging the defeat of Ronald Reagan last November. But polls have indicated that 44 percent of labor voters preferred Reagan economics to AFL-CIO's; they voted for the Republican candidate. Many of them, more concerned about rising prices than economic theories, still back the President.
The solidarity day rally was important to reinforce the confidence of labor leaders from the Washington level down through the echelons to the local officials who are most directly in touch with the unions' rank and file. It strengthened their faith in labor's political and legislative clout.
However, whether labor's rank and file will march shoulder to shoulder with its leaders -- as they appeared to in Washington -- for legislative battles over economic and social programs will depend on the AFL-CIO's success in putting together an anti-inflation alternative in which unionists can have confidence.
The solidarity day rally only prepared the ground for convention efforts to do that. On Sept. 19 demonstrators (many of them union officers and "pork choppers" or organizers and others on union payrolls) denounced budget cuts, losses of jobs, high interest rates, and the demolition of "a wide range of social programs crucial to the well-being of a large segment of society" as a way to slow inflation. The Reagan administration says this is the best and quickest way inflation can be checked.
Now AFL-CIO must convince the 15 million in its ranks that the squeeze of high prices on family budgets can be relieved without the drastic fiscal measures that are the heart of President Reagan's program.