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Labor puts its endorsement on the line in Illinois

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At the sprawling Chrysler plant here, two shifts of workers turn out compact cars for 18 hours a day. On most Saturdays the assembly line keeps right on going. Even so, Chrysler can't keep up with all the orders for the Omni, Horizon , and Shelby cars it makes here.

This is prosperity. Paychecks are fat, and they come in steadily. After a 54 -hour workweek, employees are glad just to get a day of rest.

Despite the good times, however, many of the union members here have not forgotten that their jobs were on the line a few years ago. Chrysler was near bankruptcy. Some politicians in Washington wanted to let the company fold. But a number of others, including Walter Mondale, came to their rescue.

''Walter Mondale opened his house in Washington for union members,'' recalls Don Margraf, a United Automobile Workers official here. The union and the Chrysler Corporation lobbied Congress and eventually won federal help that saved the company - and more than 4,000 jobs here in Belvidere.

''Gary Hart says Chrysler should have the right to go under,'' says Mr. Margraf. ''Well, 4,000 people would have been out of work, and maybe 10,000 more in related jobs in this area alone.''

Not every union voter, however, has seemed so grateful to Mr. Mondale this year. The former vice-president has won the solid support of union leaders. But in states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the union rank and file mostly went with Senator Hart.

This kind of result has befuddled political analysts.

When Big Labor first wrapped its muscular arms around Mondale last fall and pledged its support, just about everyone thought that assured him the Democratic nomination.

It hasn't worked out that way. Some have even suggested that labor's endorsement has hurt Mondale with other, nonunion, voters.

Such judgments, however, probably should not be made too quickly. The pivotal test for Big Labor is now under way. In Michigan, auto workers helped Mondale trounce Hart in the caucuses last Saturday. Here in Illinois (where they are counting primary votes as this story goes to press), labor is expected to help Mondale. And in even bigger tests ahead - New York and Pennsylvania - labor could be the difference between Mondale and Hart.

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