The United Steelworkers yesterday asked thousands of strikers to return to work at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. next Monday after union officials voted to suspend a bitter, 10-week strike at the sprawling yard, Virginia's largest employer.

The union called a strike Jan. 31 among the yard's 15,000 production and maintanence workers but by yesterday company executives were insisting that 75 percent of the workers were crossing picket lines despite union claims that more than half the workers were honoring the strike.

Union spokesman Bill Edwards denied that the return to work was a defeat for the union, which two months ago vowed to bring the shipyard, a subsidiary of Houston-based Tenneco, to its knees. "Don't even mention the word "defeat", Edwards said. "It's simply a change of strategies. How the hell could it be a defeat?"

Edwards said the officers of Local 8888 voted 29-to-9 Monday night to end the walkout because union staff representatives advised that legal action by the company and a rival union might drag the strike out for more than a year. "It would just punish the community," he said.

He conceded, however, that if the walkout continued, "We would have wound up a few months down the road with a dissipated strike."

Company spokesman James M. Griffith was skeptical of the union's statements. "I don't know of anything in labor relations called a 'suspension of a strike'," he said. "I presume what they're talking about is a saving of face. From the Steelworkers' own standpoint, the strike has been an utter failure from the start."

Griffith said strikers should report to the personnel office to apply for a recall list, but that it would be difficult to get them all back to work by Monday. "You obviously can't get 5,000 people in here in a day and put them to work productively," he said. But he said all strikers would be accepted back at the same rate of pay and with the same job classifications they had when they walked out Jan. 31.

Even before the union suspended the strike, which cost the Steelworkers an estimated $3 million in strike funds, union officials were backing off from previous predictions that it was labor's beachhead in the Sun Belt. Several weeks ago, Steelworkers international president Lloyd McBride conceded that it had been a "tactical blunder" to paint the strike as a major breakthrough.

Company executives and state officials said, meanwhile, that the outcome has reaffirmed Gov. John N. Dalton's support for Virginia's right-to-work law, which prohibits compulsory union membership. At the strike's outset, Dalton sent 75 state police to the shipyard to enforce the law, by preventing pickets from blocking gates.

The shipyard struggle stems from a January 1978 National Lanor Relations Board election in which the Steelworkers ousted the conservative Peninsula Shipbuilders Association as the legal bargaining agent for the yard's production and maintenance workers.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the union last year, but the company has refused to recognize vote fraud. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month found sufficient grounds in the company's complaint to order the NLRB to reconsider the company's charges.

"What everyone forgets is the Steelworkers' purpose in striking," said the shipyard's Griffith. "It was to force us to recognize them without our day in court. We not only got to court, but we have gotten a favorable decision."

Among strikers, meanwhile, the frustrations have grown as the company has begun to hire what is says are permanent replacements for the pickets outside-nearly 1,000 new hires so far, with 500 more authorized.

Hundreds of strikers surrounded a company personnel office last week smashing several windows with bricks and taungint job applicants. "They're hiring somebody to take my job," complained Domick Calautti, an angry picket captain. "I ain't out here playing games. I've got a wife and three kids," he said. "People are getting tense."

"It's turned pretty ugly," agreed company spokesman Griffith. By the shipyard's count, more than 600 cars owned by nonstriking employes have been damaged by vandals since the strike began. The company says there have been hundreds of personal and telephone threats, more than 30 assaults, a dozen cases of arson, inlcuding an attempt to burn down the shipyard's paint factory, and at least two shooting incidents, in which no one was hurt.

Newport News has become a city divided. Union and company officials disagree on how many workers are still striking-the company says only 25 percent, the union insists it's nearly two thirds. Whatever the figure, animosities run high.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of broken glass and slashed tires and threats that are being made," said a local shopkeeper. At Gus' Place, a restaurant where pickets once gathered for warmth, Steelworkers are a rare sight now. They've avoided it since one of the owners told an angry picket to stop haranguing a table of nonstrikers.

Morale among the nonstriking workers, derogatively called "scabs" by picket, is markedly high. Many have bought baseball hats with "scab" emblazoned across the front and several have been arrested for taunting pickets at the gate.

Pickets have responded by tossing welded clusters of nails into the street to flatten tires, painting the nails white for camouflage during recent snowy weather. Vandalism has risen 58 percent in the past three months, according to the police departments, which is offering rewards for information leading to vandalism convictions.

Predictably, local business has felt a pinch. A half-empty parking lot at the huge Newmarket North Mall tells half the story. The rest is told by George Brohawn, a jewelry store manager.

"I had a bad February, worse than I expected, and March wasn't too good either," said Brohawn, who suffered through his worst Valentine's Day sale ever. "People weren't saying 'I love you' this year," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, A striking shipyard worker demonstrates his sentiments . . . AP; Picture 2, . . . While some of his fellow pickets are less animated. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post