Labor chieftains meeting in New York this week may be commemorating the first 100 years of the American labor movement. But as the stinging attacks on the Reagan administration indicated, the overwhelming topic of concern is labor's uncertain future rather than its proud past.
That future poses both peril and opportunity. Some labor experts believe that 1982 may well turn out to be a watershed year. Contracts involving one million workers in such key industries as autos, rubber, trucking, and petroleum will be up for negotiation through next year. Yet, given the economic downturn as well as the generally tough stance of the administration regarding wage demands, underscored by the handling of the air controllers' strike, unions will be hard pressed to gain major concessions. At the same time 1982 is an election year, which means the likelihood of not only heightened solidarity within the union movement itself but of informal collaboration with labor's natural allies in the Democratic Party.
What would seem not to be in labor's long-range interest, however, would be a total rupture with the administration, nor a total link-up with just one US political party. The unions' influence over the years, despite organized labor's shrinking percentage of the US work force (it has now fallen to a mere 20.9 percent, from 25.2 percent in 1968), has in part stemmed from its basically moderate and nonideological ''bread-and-butter'' orientation, as opposed to political attachment in the European sense, where labor is closely affiliated with leftist political parties and causes. That is not, of course, to deny labor's close connections to the Democratic Party over the years. But the US labor movement has also usually been pragmatic in its ability to reach out to divergent views, as, for example, by traditionally inviting even Republican presidents to its national conventions. Significantly, neither President Reagan nor Labor Secretary Donovan was invited to the biennial convention this week.
For that reason it is good that Mr. Reagan has invited AFL-CIO President Lane Kirk-land and his entire executive council to a meeting at the White House Dec. 2.
Organized labor and the White House must not forget at this moment of strained relations that future US industrial production in general may well be dependent on finding new forms of cooperation between labor, government, and management. That has been the pattern in many West European nations and Japan.
Labor's biggest challenge in fact probably lies down the road - and well beyond up-coming contract negotiations and next year's election. That is the extent to which it can accommodate itself to the new computer-oriented technologies and microelectronics increasingly dominating the US work scene.
The labor movement can take pride in its accomplishments in the past century, when industrialism altered the landscape of the American economy. The task now is to find its worthy role in the vastly different space-age economy of the next 100 years.