DEARBORN, MICH., SEPT. 18 -- United Auto Workers' leaders today overwhelmingly approved a sweeping three-year labor agreement between the union and Ford Motor Co.

Approval here by the UAW's 200-member Ford bargaining council, consisting of local union officials, sends the tentative contract to the company's 104,000 active UAW-represented workers for a ratification vote beginning this weekend.

The contract obligates the company to recall workers laid off for economic reasons, such as slumping sales, immediately after those conditions have improved. It also restricts overtime employment, which tends to keep laid-off employes out of work. And it limits the company's ability to eliminate jobs through attrition.

However, the contract provides only a 3 percent wage increase in the first year and 3 percent lump sum "bonus" payments in the second and third years. The bonuses are not added to the union's wage base for future contract negotiations.

Some UAW leaders here conceded that the pay plan is a concession -- a marked deviation from the practice of rolling annual percentage increases into the wage base. But union officials said they believe the job protections are sufficient to ensure the pact's approval by the rank and file.

"Yes, it's different," said Ernest Lofton, director of the UAW's Region 1-A in southeastern Michigan. "But this is 1987, and the things that were acceptable in previous contracts are not necessarily acceptable today."

"It's a fair deal for the company and the union, and I was pleased that we were able to arrive at a tentative agreement without having to strike. That was our goal," Lofton said.

Ratification balloting is scheduled to end Sept. 30. But the UAW's top executives said they will not wait until the conclusion of the polling to present a similar contract to General Motors Corp., where there is strong opposition to the extensive and potentially expensive job guarantees achieved at Ford.

"We start at GM first thing Monday morning," said UAW vice president Donald Ephlin, who is in charge of the union's GM department.

The UAW chose Ford as a strike target in its negotiations with Ford and GM to replace three-year contracts originally scheduled to expire Sept. 14. The idea was to win an agreement at Ford and then to pressure the larger, but less profitable and far more troubled, GM into accepting the same terms. Ephlin and UAW President Owen Bieber said today that they believe they can get the same agreement at GM. But no one, especially Wall Street analysts who have been following the negotiations, is taking bets.

The lone hope for a peaceful settlement at GM is that the Ford agreement does give the company the right to lay off workers for economic reasons, and it does give Ford more freedom to consolidate multiple, inefficient job assignments on the plant floor.

At GM, the "economic reasons" provision for layoffs is key, said Maryann Keller, auto industry analyst with Furman Selz Mager Dietz & Birney in New York. In today's U.S. auto industry, "no one has more economic reasons for layoffs than GM," Keller said.