The Montgomery County Council approved legislation yesterday giving 3,600 local government workers the coveted right to negotiate employment contracts, but the real story was in the bear hug that Gino Renne gave fellow labor organizer Ken Reichard moments after the vote.

That simple gesture, which capped a two-year struggle by organized labor in Maryland to win collective bargaining for the last major group of Montgomery public employes, was a fitting symbol for the quiet ascent of Reichard's United Food and Commercial Workers Union as a powerful, if unlikely, player in local politics.

The UFCWU, traditionally the union of grocery store clerks and meat cutters, instantly increased its clout in Montgomery with the unanimous County Council vote giving nearly 1,300 blue-collar employes and 2,300 white-collar workers most of the same contract rights that local teachers, police officers and some other public employes have enjoyed for the past decade.

"The world has changed as soon as we take this vote," said Council President William E. Hanna Jr.

The bargaining legislation gives county workers new powers to open formal negotiations with the county executive and work toward a binding contract. Since the late 1970s, Renne's group could confer -- but not bargain formally -- with the executive on labor issues.

The bill does not give the employes the right to strike. Labor leaders had not sought such a provision.

Montgomery has about 6,000 county government workers and about 5,000 teachers. About 2,000 county workers, including department heads, members of the county executive and council staffs, temporary employes and new employes still on probation, are not covered under the bill passed yesterday.

Reichard, working in conjunction with a largely powerless employes group headed by Renne, won the collective bargaining law only by treading gingerly through the thicket of Montgomery's election-year politics. Renne and Reichard had to overcome initial opposition to the bill from Hanna, a conservative Democrat running for reelection, while placating council veteran Esther P. Gelman, a Democrat who hoped to use the measure to advance her campaign for Congress, according to participants in the negotiations.

Gelman, the chairwoman of the council subcommittee that handled the legislation, said there was "not a word of truth" in the many private complaints by local labor leaders that she had delayed action on the collective bargaining bill while contemplating a run for the 8th District seat.

Renne and UFCWU officials opened their campaign for the bill in 1984, first by engineering an endorsement -- with the assistance of County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist -- from the local Charter Review Commission. The commission recommended a charter amendment to the County Council, which in turn called for a nonbinding referendum in November 1984.

The concept of collective bargaining rights for county government workers was overwhelmingly approved by 70 percent of the voters, but a year passed before Gelman's committee began working actively on the legislation.

"The unions were lobbying Esther Gelman and the other council members within months of the referendum," said Mike Gildea, a national lobbyist for the AFL-CIO.

Gelman, who like the other Democratic candidates for Congress unsuccessfully sought the AFL-CIO's endorsement earlier this month, said in a recent interview: "If I could have finished it last year, I would have done so. To do it and do it well requires a great deal of work."

Gilchrist has said he plans to sign the measure shortly.