When 59-year-old Maurine M. Holt was fired after almost 10 years as the assistant manager of The Dupont Circle Building, the reaction in many of the building's 180 offices was swift and strong.

"She has been like the heart and soul of this building," said James True, a graphic designer who said he was particularly outraged because the landlord had fired Holt only a few months short of her qualifying for a pension.

Within a few weeks, True and other angry tenants had gathered more than 300 signatures within the building, demanding action by the landlord--the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Last week, Holt filed suit in U.S. District Court, charging IAM with age and sex discrimination for the "callous and illegal" firing just prior to completion of her 10th year, when she would have become vested in the union pension plan.

The case has put the machinists union--known as one of the most progressive and socially conscious in the labor movement--in the awkward role of the employer who claims that economic hardship forces tough and painful cutbacks for workers. It's the kind of action that the million-member IAM usually fights against.

In addition, the Holt case is an example of what the Pension Rights Center, a Washington-based nonprofit educational group, believes to be a growing concern of older American workers: that employers may be tempted to try to dismiss them before they qualify for lifetime pension benefits.

"We don't like to be put in this position," said Eugene Glover, 60, the general secretary-treasurer of the international union, who ordered the May 19 firing. About five of the more than 30 employes at the building were let go in recent months, he said.

Glover said the action was part of a larger-scale cutback forced by the recession, with its layoffs and plant-closings that shrank the battered union to only 570,000 dues-paying members.

Glover said the pension was not a consideration in Holt's firing. Rather, he said, the union had decided that the less senior employes in various categories had to be let go. In the Holt case, the building manager had five more years of seniority.

Glover, a tough-talking unionist who joined IAM as an 18-year-old apprentice machine-operator and rose to one of its top positions, said he would not be swayed by petitions: "I've been through the mill. If they think they can bring pressure on me, I have been through the mill."

As to the possibility of allowing Holt to be vested anyway, Glover said he denied the request because his obligation as a trustee of the pension plan forced him to follow rules strictly.

"If you turn around every time there is a bleeding heart case, then the exceptions become the rule, and you become a philanthropic organization," he said.

The 11-story brick Dupont Circle Building, at 1346 Connecticut Ave., is an old-fashioned place that still has elevator operators. They get to know most of the tenants and help create a congenial atmosphere, according to tenants.

Holt, who handled tenant complaints, collected rents, paid bills, worked on leases and helped supervise the staff, was "helpful, warm, and intelligent and made it a pleasure to have an office there," said Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, which has headquarters in the building.

Given Holt's popularity, the storm of protest was predictable, especially in the Dupont Circle Building, which, like the union itself, has a decidedly liberal reputation. It is headquarters to a diverse collection of political and public interest groups: the Public Interest Research Group, the International Human Rights Law Group, the Center for Auto Safety, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the League of Women Voters, the Child Welfare League, and many, many more.

"It's a wonderful building," Holt said in an interview, "Absolutely wonderful. The tenants are marvelous, and there is a variety that makes it like a little community. It's not typical of any other building in the area . . . It was a great place to work. I really loved my job, I really did."

True, the 38-year-old graphic artist who described himself as a veteran of the civil rights movement and other political causes, said tenants were angry not only about Holt, but about the working conditions for other building employes, and about the deterioration of the building's maintenance and cleaning operation.

The petition asked IAM to remedy these various problems.

Glover said the union has done its best, but acknowledged, "We don't know nothing about running buildings, evidently, from my experience." He said the building, purchased in 1968, was intended to be a money-making investment yielding about 10 percent yearly profit. Instead, he said, IAM has lost money some years and rarely makes its 10 percent goal.

Although the union has said that Holt's pension status was not a factor in the decision to let her go, the Pension Rights Center saw her as a "classic case of what employers are trying to do all over the country," Ferguson said.

Among American workers participating in medium-to-large pension plans (for 100 or more employes), 88 percent of the employes are covered by plans that have a 10th year "all-or-nothing" provision, Ferguson said. Those leaving before completing 10 years on the job get nothing.

"You have employers caught in a cost crunch, like IAM, that look for ways to save money, like letting go their older, more expensive employes," she said. "And when you add the savings on pension costs, it is not insignificant for the employer." She said many employers are tempted to dismiss people after about nine years.

A spokesman for the Labor Department's Office of Pension and Welfare Benefit Programs said cases of employes being fired to save on pension costs are "not that common, although certainly in isolated situations, an employer will terminate an employe just to keep them from collecting a pension."

Such an act would violate the 1974 Employe Retirement Income Security Act but it would be the employe's burden to prove the firing was pension-related, officials said.

In Holt's case, Glover said the cost of the pension was not considered. He also said the union would contest the claim that Holt would have qualified within several months, because her first year of employment had been only part time and she was not actually a full employe.

Ferguson contested that, saying that Holt met the legal test of working at least 1,000 hours in each of 10 years.

The Holt case has an additional complicating factor because she is the wife of Milo Holt, the IAM's assistant secretary-treasurer, who works for Glover.

Both Milo Holt and Glover said that the firing did not stem from any personal conflict between them, although Holt said he disagreed with Glover's action.

Milo Holt, who joined IAM 35 years ago as an auto mechanic in Salem, Ore., said, "I think this is all very unfortunate. I believe in this organization. I believe it is a fair organization, and I am surprised at the way they handled this."

Glover said the cutbacks were painful but unavoidable: "If you want to talk about bleeding heart cases, I can name you some that far outstrip hers," he said. "We have had to lay off women who were sole supporters of their children. Who likes to do that? On Mrs. Holt's end of it, at least her husband is going to get a pension.

"We studied this thing and did it with our eyes open, knowing there are some problems. We said if we are going to be fair, this is how we're gonna have to move. There is no malice in this thing."