CHICAGO, OCT. 12 -- United Auto Workers union leaders today overwhelmingly approved a new three-year contract with General Motors Corp. that mirrors a Ford Motor Co. agreement providing improved job security for union workers.

The action by the UAW's 300-member GM bargaining council sends the contract to rank-and-file union members for a ratification vote.

Some 335,000 active GM employes -- including 8,370 people in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware -- will be affected by the balloting scheduled to end Oct. 25.

Like their 104,000 counterparts at Ford, the GM workers will vote on what some UAW critics of the agreements call a Hobson's choice: whether to trade in rigidly protected job classifications and other union prerogatives for stronger protection against layoffs.

Some 72 percent of the affected Ford rank-and-file workers voted for the contract. Ratification is expected at GM, too, but not by as large a margin.

The jobs of an estimated 37,000 GM workers could disappear under the agreement because the plants in which they work were slated for closing before the tentative settlement was reached last Thursday. By comparison, only about 800 Ford workers were endangered by plant closings announced before their tentative agreement on Sept. 17.

Some UAW dissidents at GM say they will oppose the agreement because it pits workers in one plant against another in competition for future jobs.

"This is going to lead to everybody offering everything, including their mothers-in-law, to get jobs at their plants," said Donny Douglas, president of Local 594 in Pontiac, Mich., which represents 9,800 GM workers.

Douglas said the contract's establishment of joint labor management committees to study reducing costs and improving quality could blur lines between labor and management and reduce skilled trades classifications. That would be a sore point among metal workers and other crafts people who have traditionally enjoyed higher pay and status than assembly line workers.

"I'm recommending a vote against this contract," Douglas said.

But today, amidst his peers who gathered here in a festive atmosphere, Douglas' voice was drowned out in approbation of the pact.

"This contract is a damned good contract. It's the same thing as the Ford agreement. I like the Ford agreement and you can be certain that I like this one," said Linval Kellen, a UAW representative of locals in Nebraska and Iowa.

Kellen predicted "overwhelming" rank-and-file acceptance of the GM contract, which the leadership group approved today without floor debate.

From the viewpoint of the UAW leadership, the Ford and GM contracts signal corporate recognition that stable employment can be beneficial to improvements in product quality and competitiveness.

On the other hand, company officials say the UAW's willingness to scrap cherished work rules indicates the union's acceptance of the reality that jobs cannot be guaranteed by companies that are not competitive.

UAW President Owen Bieber said the objective of the GM contract is to create a milieu in which the company and the union can "build the finest products in the world, which is to our advantage as well as it's to the company's advantage."

"We can't deal with a company that is not making money," Bieber said.

Like the Ford contract, the GM agreement attempts to protect the jobs of most of its affected workers over the next three years. Under the GM pact, as under the Ford agreement, layoffs will be permitted only during sales declines of GM's U.S.-made products, as long as those declines are not caused by sales of products made abroad but sold by GM in the United States.

Both contracts restrict the use of overtime or outside suppliers to extend layoffs and places a three-year moratorium on plant closings.

The minor differences between the GM and Ford contracts include a sweetened job buyout proposal in the GM contract.

Under the Ford plan, under mutually agreed upon conditions, the company can buy out a worker's job at a cost ranging from $10,000 to $55,000, depending on the employe's seniority. The GM contract raises the minimum buyout to $12,000 and the maximum to $65,000.

Wall Street analysts consistently have warned that GM may have more difficulty than Ford living with job guarantees, but those analysts also predicted that GM probably would take a strike rather than go along with a Ford pact.

GM officials said in interviews over the weekend that many of the analysts simply did not understand the loopholes contained in the Ford agreement that could be used to GM's advantage. Nor did the critics understand GM's belief that a strike could have caused enough dissension within the GM work force to do grave damage to GM's product-improvement plans over the next three years.

UAW President Bieber said today that the experts were wrong about the acceptability of the Ford pact at GM, and that they also are wrong to believe that GM has hurt itself by taking the Ford contract.

"It's a good agreement," he said. "We didn't have a strike at Ford and we didn't have one at General Motors. That 's a positive development.