When the Virginia Supreme Court outlawed collective bargaining for public employes in 1977, teachers in Northern Virginia condemned the decision as "deplorable" and "catastrophic."

Last week, on the third anniversary of that ruling, the teachers complained that their initial pessimism may have been too optimistic.

"Things are just so terrible," said Val Martin, president of Alexandria Education Association, which represents more than 80 percent of the 735 Alexandria teachers. "We have been relegated to slave status."

Martin's reaction, echoed by leaders of teacher associations throughout Virginia, is unqualified and predictable. Teachers have lost bargaining power when double-digit inflation makes that power most crucial. As a result, complain teachers, they are being driven to accept hard bargains.

But the death of collective bargaining is being mourned in some unexpected places. In Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, some school board members, who represent management in the labor equation, argue that the court decision has saved little money, while creating enough employe frustration to make a kindergarten teacher curse.

"I think it has made everyone's job hard," says Ann P. Kahn, a Fairfax school board member. "If you had never had collective bargaining, you might feel different. But the loss has brought about a real morale problem."

"It is extraordinarily difficult to come to a conclusion of what's fair without some kind of dialogue," adds Alexandria school board member Claudia Waller. "The inability to really get down to the nitty gritty and just have everything in a general conversation . . . is very frustrating."

There is disagreement over how much the loss of collective bargaining has contributed to the deterioration of relations between school administrations and their employes in Northern Virginia. But there is no dispute that it has been a factor in producing a degree of bitterness which both sides describe as "unprecedented."

Within the last year, teachers in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties have staged job actions, refusing to participate in extra-curricular activities or to take work home with them. Those job actions continue in Fairfax and Arlington, and a spokesman for the Prince William Education Association says teachers there are prepared to initiate a job action if salary demands are not met this spring.

The resignations within the last year of superintendents in Fairfax, Alexandria and Prince William also have been blamed on labor unrest intensified by the loss of collective bargaining.

"It is no coincidence that every superintendent in Northern Virginia had a vote of no-confidence last year," says Arlington school board member Mary Margaret Whipple.

"The superintendent has become much more of a natural target for frustration," says Arlington Superintendent Larry Cuban, who was censured by the Arlington Education Association last year for his "callous and cavalier attitude."

"In the past," Cuban said, "most boards hired a professional negotiator. Now the superintendent is thrust more obviously into the discussions and . . . becomes more of a lightning rod for the frustrations."

Despite his support for collective bargaining, Cuban does not believe that power would have resulted in significantly better pay raises or benefit packages over the past two years, primarily because spiraling inflation and the widespread call for tax cuts have put the squeeze on school budgets. Still, he says, there are valid reasons for returning to collective bargaining. The major one, as Cuban sees it, is the more teachers are involved in the process, the more responsibility they share for the end result.

Local legislators say the chances of getting the General Assembly to restore collective bargaining are almost nonexistent. Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) has introduced a bill for that purpose, but even supporters describe it as primarily a gesture.

"The bill is dusted off and introduced every year, but it has never come close," says Del. Elise Heinz (D-Arlington-Alexandria). "I know both the Arlington and Alexandria shcool boards would very much like to negotiate with teacher organizations, but it won't happen this year."

Gartlan's bill would not revive genuine collective bargaining, but would only provide a format for representatives of public employe groups to "meet and confer" with representatives of employers. The lack of a clear policy on the type of contact allowed between school administrations and employe groups has produced several disputes in Northern Virginia school districts, particularly in Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

Last spring the president of the Loudoun Education Association, Joyce Jackson, accused school board Chairman Leonard Warner of refusing to answer questions about surpluses in the school budget. Warner was quoted as saying the 1977 Supereme Court decision did not allow him to talk about such issues to the head of an employes group.

"The traditional relationship of teachers and school boards in this county is -- intimidation may be too strong a word -- but teachers know where they don't stand," said a Loudoun Education Association officer at that time. "There is very little communication and neither side truly understands the other."

John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors accused his school board last month of going to the opposite extreme by conducting illegal negotiations with teacher representatives. The school board countered that its meetings with teacher representatives were conducted under guidelines approved by state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman.

The negotiation procedure used by Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties before 1977 was never collective bargaining as defined by most private companies. School employes were legally prohibited from striking, which is the biggest bargaining point available to any union. And in cases of irreconcilable differences over pay raises, there was no neutral, third party with the authority to resolve the deadlock.

Suzanne Kelly, president of the Virginia Education Association, which claims statewide membership of 44,000 teachers, has been trying to make that contrast obvious to legislators in Richmond. Kelly and others in the VEA carefully avoid terms that a conservative legislature might associate with radical unionism.

"There are certain red flags," says Eugene Truitt, VEA director of negotiating and organizing. "Mention collective bargaining and they just don't hear you after that point."

The VEA has intensified its lobbying efforts in Ricmond since 1977. Arlington school board Chairman Ann Broder says VEA lobbyists "were swarming like an army of red ants" through the legislature last year.

"We find we have to negotiate with the General Assembly for basic issues . . . that should be decided on a local level," admits Kelly, who says VEA has eight full-time lobbyists and 16 other staff people in Richmond. "If we can't have it there, we'll do it however we can."

Rick Nelson -- president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, a group founded in 1977 to rival the Fairfax Eudcation Association -- says the VEA and its Fairfax affiliate are not militant enough. Nelson has publicly described the FEA as "patsies." He says his 500-member association, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is the only group which has a chance to regain lost bargaining rights for teachers.

"An isolated organization in this state is not going to win back collective bargaining, it just doesn't have the clout," argues Nelson. "With the cooperation of the private sector unions, we could get enough political clout to win back collective bargaining."

The VEA is trying to strengthen its political power by urging local teacher associations to campaign actively for, and against, elected officials. The effort thus far has met with limited success. In last fall's races for the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, for example, only three of the eight candidates backed by the FEA were elected.

"I'm just so upset with Virginia politics," says Alexadria's association president Val Martin. "The next thing I'll work on is secession of Northern Virginia from the rest of the state."