United Auto Workers union leaders voted yesterday to start early contract talks with General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. about concessions the companies say they need to offset billions of dollars in business losses.

UAW's bargaining councils for GM and Ford approved the motion in separate meetings in Chicago, thereby joining other unions who are going to the bargaining table this year expecting to give more than they receive.

Recession, inflation and declining sales--particularly in the auto industry--are forcing companies to take a hard line in 1982, the first and most active bargaining year in a new three-year cycle of negotiations. A national 8.9 percent unemployment rate--including 281,000 unemployed autoworkers--is forcing many unions to accommodate management's demands.

It is a painful time for both labor and management, Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige said this week. "Business and labor have got to get together and look at their traditional roles in a new context," Baldrige said Wednesday in a speech to the President's National Productivity Advisory Committee.

Baldrige said the traditional scheme of adversary labor-management relationships has been upset by the emergence of multinational corporations and international economic competition in which, for example, foreign car manufacturers have 27 percent of the U.S. auto sales market.

"We can't push the entire blame on labor, as some have tried" in assessing the generally sorry state of the domestic economy, Baldrige said. But he added that labor "has got to get ready for a return to wage rates linked to realistic increases in productivity."

Union leaders tend to bridle at any insinuation that their members are getting paid more than they are worth. But they have been making concessions, anyway, in an attempt to save jobs. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has accepted a contract with Armour & Co. that essentially freezes all wage and cost-of-living increases through 1985. Other recent concession agreements include:

* A 1,656-to-179 vote Thursday by United Steelworkers union members to sacrifice about $20 million in scheduled wage and benefit increases to help McClouth Steel Corp. near Detroit avoid bankruptcy.

* A tentative agreement by unionized Western Airlines employes to accept a 10 percent wage cut to help the company pull out of its financial nosedive. As part of that agreement, announced Thursday, the Air Line Pilots Association would give up wages and benefits totaling $16.8 million a year.

* An agreement by the Teamsters union to go to early negotiations in the trucking industry in a bid to keep debt-ridden freight carriers on the road. The negotiations, which began in earnest Dec. 1, are expected to yield a contract with a minimum increase in straight wages.

Labor accounts for 26 percent of the total costs paid by all U.S. manufacturing industries, according to Commerce Department figures. The department estimates that labor accounts for 35 percent to 40 percent of the costs in domestic auto manufacturing.

Domestic car sales dropped 5.3 percent from 1980 to 1981 to their lowest level in two decades. GM and Ford, their appetites whetted by the nearly $1.7 billion in concessions the UAW already has given to the faltering Chrysler Corp., have been demanding since early 1981 that the union give them concessions before current contracts expire Sept. 14.

The union normally would have gone to the bargaining table in late May or early June to begin work on a new contract. But UAW's GM and Ford units, the 1.2-million-member union's largest groups, plan to start talking as early as next week.

"It is time for innovative action," the union representatives said in joint statements issued yesterday. "Therefore we authorize the negotiating committees to start collective bargaining discussions . . . in an effort to improve the prospects our members face in the future."