WASHINGTON (AP) _ Alexander E. Barkan, longtime head of the AFL-CIO's political action committee, has died, the labor federation announced Friday.

Barkan, who had been active in the trade union movement since 1937, died Thursday at Sibley Hospital after a long illness. He was 81.

''To know Al was to be lifted by his great vitality and single-mindedness with which he pursued trade unionism in general and election victories in particular,'' said Lane Kirkland, president of the 14.2 million-member AFL- CIO.

Barkan was a native of Bayonne, N.J. He studied economics and political science at the University of Chicago. The AFL-CIO said he became committed to unionism, in part, as a result of attending lectures by and discussion groups with famed civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow.

In 1937, Barkan joined the staff of the Textile Workers Organizing Committee. Following the merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955, Barkan was appointed assistant director of the federation's Committee on Political Education, or COPE.

He was appointed COPE director in 1963 by then AFL-CIO President George Meany, overseeing the powerful labor federation's millions of dollars worth of political contributions and channeling its manpower into political campaigns. He retired in 1980.

Barkan is survived by his wife, Helen, two daughters and four grandchildren.