THERE HAS BEEN much groaning of late about the slowed growth of American productivity, about how workers are turning out too little for every hour on the job and about the profound affect of all this on inflation.

Various villains have been fingered - anemic business investment, more young and female employes who have less experience and therefore produce less, meddlesome government regulations, to name a few. But there is still much head-scratching about why the rate of U.S. productivity growth is now trailing that of Japan and of virtually every other industrialized nation. "There are a lot of things about what has happened that we don't fylly understand," as presidential adviser Charles Schultze has reremarked.

What is truly difficult to understand, though, is why so little attention has been paid to a critical element of the problem: the adversary relationship between those who do the work and those they do it for.

If workers feel (as most do) that they are just replaceable parts in the machine; if they operate on the idea (as they are encouraged to) that "they are out to get me - I'll get them first"; if the system is designed to generate tension on the theory that such tension produces positive results, then the workers' response is predictable. They will protect themselves, oppose pay guidelines ("I'll be paying for it all agian"), and be isolated from a universe in which they are a prime factor.

Because we have built a system based on mutual distrust, workers simply do not identify global abstract problems of productivity and competitiveness as theirs.

Where the adversary relationship, has been replaced by mutuality and trust, where the emphasis has been on humans rather than on machines and systems, the result has been very different.

Stunning reductions have developed in total costs - including the heavy price we pay for elaborate systems of quality control, supervision, product warranty and other costs not included in traditional productivity measures - and striking gains have been made in output.

I have seen it happen in industry at Harman International, when I was cheif executive of that manufacturer of high-fidelity equipment, auto mirrors and other products. I have seen the idea adopted in the federal bureaucracy, where workers are active participants in the decision-making process in several Commerce Department units. And I have seen the idea gain acceptance in a growing number of other corporations.

Ssome managers may not like to face it, but experience makes clear that workers possess and enormous untapped inventory of know-how. If ever they believed they were genuinely respected for what they know, were truly part of the action, they would jolt our economists, our pundits and our savants with what they would produce.

I am not speaking about programs aimed at worker "motivation" or "job enrichment" or suggestion boxes, about piped-in music or employe swimming pools or other paternalistic benefits that "we," in our wisdom and generosity, provide for "you." Those are seen as ways to increase production, as the "carrot bastard" - which of course is what they are - and they do not survive worker suspicion. Rather, I am talking about workers sharing fully in making the decisions that design their lives at work.

'Let's take a go at it'

Consider what happende at a Harman International plant in Bolivar, Tenn. There, mutual trust led to early negotiation and agreement on a union contract that produced dignificant savings.

The conventional negotiation process, conducted in a "hot atmosphere," invariably had generated deep tension and excess manufacturing cost. In the months before the contract expired, tremendous amounts of expensive and inefficient overtime would be worked to ensure anavailable inventory for customers in the event of strike. When an agreement was reached, of course, inventories were too high and workers were put on a short work week.

In 1975 the company approached the union several months early and said, "Look, we're going to build that protective inventory, and if we have a strike we're going to go through the same damn mess we did before. If we can sit down and work out our agreement early, whatever we agree to we'll put into effect immediately instead of waiting until the expiration of the old contract." The local union said, "Fine, let's take a go at it."

That contract was settled almost four months ahead of time. The wage and benefit increases took effect four months in advance of the old contract's expiration. The wasteful inventory build-up wasn't necessary. The work remained steady so that the madness of heavy and inefficient overtime wfollowed by sharply reduced work weeks was eliminated.

One might expect such a contract to have been rejected by union members on the ground that if the union had held out longer, it could have gotten more. But the three-year agreement was ratified by more than 90 oercent of the workers, members of a union shop in a right-to-work state.

Of course it is not all that simple; that agreement was the product of mutual respect that had been built over some years. Workers core groups at the plant had participated in designing the plant produciton system and in deciding what health and safety measures were needed. The workers had even participated with management in developing competitive bids for new business contracts-and the bids were successful.

The productivity increases that resulted from all this were startling: Workers did in 6 hours what previously had taken them 12. They ended up with extra time, and they urged that a school be started at the plant. The school was formed, offering classes in the arithmetic of business, so workers could understand better how costs were determined and what profit and loss meant. Other courses were given in public speaking, welding, music and a variety of additional subjects.

Moving the right way

The point is that people need to know they really matter; life doesn't add up to much when that's missing. When it is present, when the worker is a genuine participant in designing the work and in shaping the conditions under which the work is done - and when workers share equitably in the reduced costs and increased profits that result - then mutual trust candevelop.

What also develops is a deeper sense of worker responsibility, which is what could be found not only at the Bolivar plant but at two Department of Commerce units, the publications shop and the auditors' office, where employes have been participating in production and policy decisions. The way those workers approach their jobs, the creativity and commitment they invest in their work, is markedly different from what one encounters in most other corners of the federal bureaucracy.

These are not isolated cases, not flukes. Last May, for example, as undersecretary of commerce, I walked through a relatively new Cummins Engine plant in Jamestown, N.Y., that builds diesel engines. Dick Allison, who runs the plant, explained that total manufacturing costs have been reduced by as much as 25 percent because the worker has become the focal point, because "the work is done right the first time," and because supervision in the traditional sense has virtually disappeared.

General Motors and American Telephone & Telegraph, to name two others, have also begun moving in a similar direction.

But we are not doing anywhere near enough in this area. The government is not the central player, but it can provide leader-ship and it can sponsor and support such efforts in plants and communities. A bill to provide $10 million for this purpose, a measure that could finance the trainign of people to facilitate this process for those who want them, passed in the closing days of the last Congress. But the funds need to be apropriated in this Congress if the bill is to come to life.

Numbers of studies tell us what last year's coal strike cost the nation, and we'll be able to recite the impact on inflation of other work stoppages still to come. Has anyone ever studied the cost of traditional bargaining that does not end in strike - but that does create enormous enproductive costs in poor work, excess overtime and damaged relationships while everyone concentrates on the negotiation and is distracted form the work? This is how the overwhelming number of contract negotiations proceed, and the effect fo this process on inflation must be immense, regardless of the terms of the final settlement.

It will not be easy, of course, to overcome resistance to this thinking in the private sector, given the threat some managers will see, at least initially, to the nature and status of their jobs and given the suspicions of many trade unionists, who wonder if worker participation committees will undermine traditional union arrangements. Experience suggests, however, that such fears are essentially groundless and, considering the stakes involved, there can be little doubt that we should press ahead.

There is a growing awareness that the old system doesn't work well for anyone anymore. It was built on attitudes that may have been appropriate at the turn of the century but that are clearly inappropriate today. We must examine the extra costs generated by our tradition of adversial relationships in the workplace - to say nothing of the needless waste of human resources and dignity - and we must move to change them.

While this cannot be expected to solve our difficulties, it can make a significant difference in our economy and in our lives. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By Robert Soule for The Washington Post