Last September, going through one of the modern Japanese auto plants near Tokyo, I asked one of the workers about the Japanese Auto Workers Union, of which he is a member. Then, after answering my question, he said:

"You must know, I am also a member of the company."

This, for me, encapsulated the unique spirit of Japanese labor-management cooperation that above all other considerations accounts for the striking Japanese success in penetrating world markets. "In Japan," JAW President Ichiro Shioji told me, "in order to improve productivity and product quality, the labor side and the management side cooperate with each other."

One shouldn't expect the United Auto Workers and the American auto industry to embrace the Japanese system overnight, if ever. The Japanese system focuses on group rather than individual accomplishment, an inner feeling developed over centuries of a unique culture.

Ours is different, but--as the Japanese have done--our culture can borrow from theirs, especially in industrial management techniques. Therefore, I think one of the most exciting, and potentially productive, economic events of recent years is the decision of the UAW to give back some wage and benefit concessions already won from the Ford Motor Co., in exchange for some assurance of increased job security and an experiment with lifetime employment.

Beyond the specific dollars-and-cents impact of the agreement--which by saving Ford perhaps $1 billion in the next two years may keep it intact as a viable company--is the acceptance by Ford of the worker as a human being, one who might even be given a voice in the management of the company.

Peter Pestillo, Ford's vice president for labor relations, told reporters here the other day that "the wave of the future . . . is greater participation by our work force in the business process. Indifference is being scrapped." That's an enormous step. It comes late in the game for Ford, but it hasn't come yet for General Motors, which missed a great opportunity to reach out for a similar agreement.

According to Pestillo, a major adaptation from the Japanese system is to allow "labor relations policy to be guided by the personnel system, not the legal system." In effect, as Pestillo explained it to Jim Lehrer on public television, the Japanese "do a great deal more in terms of consultation with the hourly force in terms of flexibility and in terms of willingness to operate in good faith. We heretofore have operated in large part on legal restriction, legal language. There is a trend toward changing that in this agreement, which I hope is the wave of the future."

Donald Ephlin, a UAW vice president who made an exploratory trip with Pestillo to Japan last summer, points out that "one of the problems we've always had is that we make the blue-collar worker appear to be a failure. In Europe and Japan, they glorify him. But in our society, we seem to say, 'If all you can do is blue-collar work, you're a failure to start.' " In the new agreement, Ephlin feels that Ford is beginning to recognize the contribution of workers on the line.

In an interview, Pestillo said that by giving some attention to simple "quality of life complaints" in its inefficient Cleveland stamping plant, where production was 1,100 pieces in an eight-hour shift against a standard of 1,500, the company got 2,000 pieces with no problem. "We turned the problems over to the people on the shop floor," Pestillo said. He adds: "Every worker does his job better if he is producing something that he is proud of."

That's a very Japanese approach: in a Japanese assembly plant, it's accepted practice that a worker can push a red "STOP" button on the assembly line if he has to. The knowledge that the human being, not the machine, is in ultimate control is a strong plus for worker dignity.

American managers have had a hard time getting a simple lesson like that through their skulls. Martin Douglas, a sander laid off by General Motors, wrote a brilliant and poignant piece in The New York Times on Feb. 15, in which he said:

"General Motors expects two things of a worker: come to work and do what you are told. There is no sense of teamwork or working together to solve common problems."

There has been no halo around Ford, either. Pestillo admits that until this successful negotiation with the UAW, "plant managers were told not to speak to workers while bargaining was going on. It wasn't considered good practice. But they showed up this time."

The payoff, Ford hopes, will be motivated workers who care about the quality of cars they produce. A company survey showed Ford management that 85 percent of American customers put quality ahead of price when they walk into a showroom, and Ford has placed a big bet on its future by guaranteeing virtually cost-free normal maintenance on its Escort and Lynx subcompact lines.

"If you demand quality, you get it--and I think we are there now," Pestillo said. When he and Ephlin came back from Japan last year, he said: "We've begun to tell our people what is wrong with the product . . . what needs to be done. Heretofore, we haven't bothered too much with that and now we are doing it. I think it is showing up in the product."

Sounds simple--basic communications. But just play back the above quote from GM's laid-off Martin Douglas.

Ford and the UAW have taken a gutsy step, together. It's not easy to ask workers to give back pay concessions that they've won, but the recession is extremely useful to concentrate the mind. Japan has won a share of the U.S. auto market that is now greater than the Ford and Chrysler shares together.

The union and the company have met the situation with their own private "incomes policy" that one hopes will work to their advantage, and to that of the consumer. The Japanese make a high-quality product, but as Pestillo says, they are not invincible. On the other hand, they've been a lot smarter, and it's good to see one company begin to wise up. So kudos to Pestillo and Ephlin. Maybe General Motors is just too big for its own good.