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Labor waits for consensus candidate. SPLINTERED SUPPORT

Four years after its unprecedented early push for Democratic presidential hopeful Walter Mondale, Big Labor is stuck with a weak and divided campaign message. It is quickly losing an opportunity to display its clout in choosing the Democratic presidential nominee.

Since union members - like the rest of the Democrats - can't agree on a candidate, national union leaders face an important decision.

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Should they continue to allow the splintering of labor support and resources among various candidates, as some local leaders suggest? Or is it time to step in with a more active but controversial stance?

The focus of this debate is Iowa, which in 12 days will kick off the presidential primary season. (Democrats still lack quarterback, Page 3.)

At a packed union hall in Burlington, Chuck Gifford, head of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) political effort in Iowa, is explaining the state caucuses. Although a fervent supporter of Democratic hopeful Richard Gephardt, he carefully avoids any mention of the candidates.

But Mr. Gifford wants to see more effort to get consensus.

``My disappointment is that the national leadership wasn't trying to get it done,'' he says in an interview after the meeting. ``They just let it float and cut it adrift.''

The result makes organized labor less influential with the eventual nominee.

``If we let the next President slip by ... and don't attempt to make an endorsement, it's going to be a little hard to say: `Hey, remember those commitments,''' says Don McKee, president of the state council of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

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``I think organized labor may be caught flat-footed in this process,'' he says.

On the other hand, endorsing a candidate would risk dissension among union ranks, other local leaders say.

``You've got to protect the organization,'' says Louis DeFrieze, secretary-treasurer of District Local 431 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. ``It's too premature to jump out in front in the Iowa caucus.''

Another major reason for caution: When labor backed Mr. Mondale before the Iowa caucuses in 1984, the candidate was soon tagged as the captive of special-interest groups. The ``special interest'' label still irks many labor leaders, perhaps because it hints at a fundamental concern. Once representing 1 in 3 American workers, union membership now stands at a postwar low of barely 1 in 6, the Labor Department reported last week.

As the union role shrinks in the work force, organized labor's claim to represent the American worker becomes increasingly tenuous.

Compared with 1984, the AFL-CIO - the federation that represents most American labor unions - has acted more circumspectly this time. It geared up a huge political information campaign for its member unions. It also asked national unions not to endorse candidates. The group's hope: that a consensus may emerge before the nominee is a foregone conclusion.

``They've learned from '84,'' says David Loebsack, a Democrat and professor of politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. ``We do have to be careful with what are perceived to be special-interest endorsements.''

At the state and local level, however, some labor groups and individuals have publicly or privately moved to support a variety of candidates for president.

The Iowa council of AFSCME has formally endorsed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Mr. Dukakis has also gained the tacit support of many state leaders of the Food and Commercial Workers and the Communications Workers of America.

Illinois Sen. Paul Simon is formally supported by the Des Moines-area building trades council and appears to have nailed down the support of nearly 40 percent of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents 31,000 teachers in the state. The Iowa UAW is strongly but unofficially supporting Mr. Gephardt, the Missouri congressman.

Rick Avery, vice-president of UAW Local 997, is one of those supporters. ``I think it's good to leave individuals alone to make their decisions,'' he says. ``But a lot of our people are looking for leadership.''

This scattershot approach will help those unions that managed to pick the right candidate; and it may help get union workers elected to the national Democratic convention, says James Wengert, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

But that strategy is definitely second-best, union leaders acknowledge. ``I think labor loses its clout when it doesn't show direction,'' says Ron Nielsen, Iowa political director of the Communications Workers. ``When you're launching an attack, you want everybody facing the same direction.''

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