Top AFL-CIO leaders from around the country are preparing to meet in Denver in two weeks to draft plans for a presidential election campaign that will involve large amounts of money and effort on behalf of Walter Mondale's bid for the White House.
The federation's 35-member Executive Council, presidents or other principal officers of affiliated unions and departments, and executive representatives of state and local federations were called to the Aug. 19 meeting by AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland to plan to ''mobilize labor's support'' for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket and ''endorse candidates at all levels.''
Optimistic as labor leaders try to appear outwardly, they acknowledge that the AFL-CIO had a difficult time winning support for Mr. Mondale in the hard-fought Democratic primaries and that it will be even more difficult to elect him in November.
The Democratic primary campaign was between Mondale, who had the AFL-CIO's early endorsement and strong support, and rivals Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. None of the three had solid and enthusiastic support in labor's rank and file; only a minority of trade unionists voted at caucuses and primaries.
Mondale faces in President Reagan one of the most popular presidents in modern political history and one who has substanial support (40 to 50 percent in recent polls) among union members.
The primary goal now is to register at least 4 million more union voters this summer.
Roughly half of all union members are already eligible to vote. Four million more would bring the total to about three-fourths of 20 million union members. Union households, which include spouses and others of voting age, form a pool of about 37 million voters, or about 22 percent of the total voting-age population. If unions can match their 1982 record of 80 percent registered and 51 percent voting, and if two-thirds of the labor vote backs Mondale, then labor's political strategists say his chances of victory will be strengthened substantially.
This is an awesome task for union leaders. They must cope with the independents in the rank and file, the majority of whom are more influenced by television, newspapers, and the candidates they see than by the urging of union leaders. Only about 5 to 10 percent of union members attend local meetings. Sam Dawson, political director of the United Steelworkers, says, ''It is very difficult to communicate with members.''
Adding to the difficulties Mr. Reagan's popularity within blue-collar and other union ranks, and Mondale's image as a cold, calculating politician with little appeal. Labor leaders acknowledge that their attacks on the President must be carefully limited to his record rather than his personality to avoid the risks of a serious backlash.
Labor leaders are expected to try to convince unionists that the President must be held responsible for the economic and social hardships that workers and those in allied groups may have endured over the past 31/2 years.
This will not be easy. A majority of union members seems to feel closer to Reagan than to Mondale on many issues, including foreign policy, prayer in public schools, and economic policies.
The AFL-CIO is expected to maintain that Reagan's policies have helped the wealthy more than those less affluent and that he is trying to weaken organized labor.
Admitting AFL-CIO's problems, Glenn Watts, president of the Communications Workers of America, says, ''We will just keep on telling our members what kind of person we think Reagan is and hope some of it sticks.''