"I shall love it as long as I live!" cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. "What an honest expression it has in its face! Here's the Turkey. Hallo! Whoop!"

-- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

At the end, you will remember, he gave away the bird. And by doing so, Ebenezer Scrooge altered the entire course of American labor-management relations.

For while the evidence is scattered, and the theories contradictory, it is safe to suppose that the strange holiday practice of giving away turkeys en masse to American workers began with Scrooge's supreme gesture of benevolence -- the delivery of a turkey "twice the size of Tiny Tim" to the home of the downtrodden Cratchits.

And now the startling news: What Scrooge began, the rest of us seem prepared to abolish. During this decade in search of excellence, the practice of giving away holiday turkeys to employes is in a period of marked decline.

"It's a new kind of employe we have, a new breed of worker," explains Kevin Sweeney, president of the American Center for the Quality of Work Life, a Washington think tank. "They want respect. They want equality. They don't want turkeys."

"It's a cultural thing," says Martin Siegel of the National Labor Management Foundation. "They don't want to be patronized . . . They say, 'Give me a raise, but don't throw me a turkey.' "

Besides rising self-esteem among workers, experts agree that the decline in turkey largess at Thanksgiving and Christmas can be blamed partly on that nemesis of industrial innovation, the American tax system, what with all its loopholes and accelerated depreciations.

"The IRS is breathing down your neck on every damn perk you give," Siegel seethes. "How do you put a value on a turkey? It's much simpler to give them the time off." Siegel said he could not speculate on whether passage of President Reagan's tax reform plan might reverse the trend.

There is also the matter of unions. A spokesman for the AFL-CIO said that turkeys were once a tool of evil industrialists, "something they gave you to prevent you from signing a union card."

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that giving away turkeys around the time of a union election is a violation of federal law, according to Mark A. de Bernardo, a labor lawyer with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Labor is not interested in talking turkey at the bargaining table," de Bernardo said.

The exact dimensions of the fowl-giving crisis are difficult to determine. A 1984 study by Prentice-Hall found that fewer than 40 percent of all American companies gave gifts to their employes during the holidays, but the survey did not reveal how many of those gifts were turkeys. The study's author did note, however, that electronic calculators and other unfeathered gadgets are gaining popularity with America's largest employers.

A very informal survey of the Washington area's richest companies uncovered a startling reversion to Before Scrooge industrial morality. Only one out of a dozen companies contacted gave any gifts at all to its employes during the holidays. Even Giant Food, which presumably has access to some of the cheapest fowls in town, cedes not an inch to its workers. "Somebody said to me the other day, 'It must be nice to get discounts on food,' " grieved a Giant spokeswoman. "And I said, 'What do you mean? We don't get any discounts around here.' "

Among those contacted, only venerable Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest producer of ham, bacon, sausages and hot dogs on the East Coast, still doles out turkeys to its workers during the holidays. Smithfield Chairman Joseph W. Luter III said his company buys about 4,000 frozen turkeys every year and hands them out at the factory gates at Smithfield's two area plants.

"I realize that this is a trend that's slowing down," Luter said wistfully. "But we've just decided to carry on."