THE LABOR DEPARTMENT, I've heard, is to federal employe trends what California is to everything else -- the place where everything happens first. So when a friend who is a lawyer there told me about a new collective bargaining agreement the department had signed with its employes, I listened.

Quite a progressive agreement, my friend said. Not only did it mandate "flexitime," a new federal program that allowed employes, within limits, to set their own hours; it also provided up to two years' "child care" leave after pregnancy. It even gave employes the right to play radios or tape decks at their desks.

This sounded like some federal paperwork I might actually want to read. I wasted no time getting down to Labor to see if I might get a copy of the contract. The Frances Perkins Building, Labor's headquarters, is a modern concrete-and-glass facility familiar to many Washington commuters since it straddles Interstate 95 as the highway deadends near the Capitol. The gridlike cubicles of the building's facade do little to lift the spirits, and most of the offices inside its vast seven stories have no access to natural light -- thought I am told that an early problem with carbon monoxide fumes seeping into the lower floors from the freeway has been solved.

Inside, the atmosphere seemed generally relaxed. At one desk, a woman was doing her knitting, while in another office a secretary seemed engrossed in her novel. Farther along I noticed another woman padding toward her office in a pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers.

I wandered deeper into the maze of hallways, pausing every few yards to check whether I was approaching North 4408, the office of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employes (AFGE).

Thumpa, thumpa, thumpa, another one bites the dust

I glanced in the direction of the sound, but all I could see was the reception area and the corner of a desk. In a nearby office, all of the five or six desks apparently had been left unoccupied. As I passed, a phone was ringing.

The contract proved to be an intimidating document 160 pages thick. On the last page was a list of the 14 representatives of the union and the 11 representatives of the department who had negotiated the agreement.

Instead of wading through the text, I decided to save some time by calling the participants directly. It was 2 p.m. -- a good hour, I thought, to catch people in their offices. I picked a name from the top of the union list, one Jeffrey Salzman.

"Hello, is Mr. Salzman in?"

"He's not here," came the curt reply.

"Do you know when he'll be back?"

"No."

"is he expected back at all today?"

"I really don't know."

Next on the list was Doris Thomas, third vice president of the union, according to the contract. I dialed her office in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Is Ms. Thomas in?"

"No, I don't know where Doris is."

"Do you know when she'll be back?"

"No, she didn't say where she was going."

"Can I leave a message?"

"I guess so."

Third was Charles Wood. "Yes, this is his office," the reply came, "but he's usually not here. He spends most of his time over at the union office."

After the fourth name, I began to get worried. By the time the ninth person on the list was out of her office ("No, I don't have any idea when she'll be back"), I was getting desperate. I dialed number 10, a Paul Gifford.

Luckly, Gifford was in, and more than happy to talk about the contract.

I asked first about "flexitime." Gifford explaimed that limited experiments in "alternative work schedules" were going on in various government agencies, but that Labor's contract was the first to ensure that all employes in the "bargaining unit" who weren't already participating in an experiment would be covered by one of several flexitime plans.

These ranged from a slight variation on the traditional work week to the most liberal plan known as "maxiflex." In maxiflex, an employe's 40 hours of work can be concentrated into four days between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., as the employe sees fit -- providing he is present during the "core hours" (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) of the "core days" (usually Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). Gifford explained: "Maxiflex means that if I get up on a Friday morning and it's an absolutely gorgeous day out, I can say, 'Gee, I'd rather go biking along the C & O Canal than go to work,' and I don't have to bother calling anyone to say I'm not coming in."

Gifford also cleared up some ocnfusion I had over the provision of the contract relating to maternity leave, which reads:

"Child Care Leave: An employe may be granted any combination of annal leave or leave without pay, for a period up to two years for the purposes of pregnancy, or for assisting or caring for the minor children of the employe or the mother of a male employe's newborn child while the mother is incapacitated for maternity reasons."

I told Gifford the syntax of the paragrpah struck me as odd. He explained that this was because the provision had been written to apply to fathers as well as mothers, and -- in a concession management had initially resisted -- to unwed fathers as well as unwed mothers. What the clause means, he said, is that any employe who has a child and takes "child care leave" is guaranteed either his old job or a comparable one when he returns, up to two years later. The union, Gifford said, had originally asked for five years.

Finally, there was this paragraph:

"Use of Personal Audio Devices: Employes have the right to play radios, cassettes, etc., on the worksite so long as the use does not disturb the productivity of the employe or other employes within the worksite and does not distract clientele."

I asked Gifford what the "etc." meant.

"It meant televisions."

Indeed, said Gifford, the union interpretted the contract to include TVs under "audio devices." On this issue there seemed to have been some tactical debate within the union negotiating team. Later, Wayne Lauderdale, another union negotiator, told me: "Our biggest problem was whether to include televisions because a lot of clerical people are into soap operas. Originally, the word 'television' was in there, but it didn't cost us anything to strike it because it was covered anyway under 'etc.' "

Otherwise, said Lauderdale, "This provision was no big deal because all it did was affirm a practice that has been fairly widespread in the department for a long time."

Now I was getting somewhere. I decided it was time to check out management's view of all this. So I put in a call to Robert Hastings, the director of the department's Office of Labor-Management Relations.

"Is Mr. Hastings in?"

"No, he isn't."

"Do you expect him today?"

"I'm not sure."

I tried Hastings again the next day, and again the next. He wasn't in, so I left messages. The third day, when he hadn't returned my calls, I asked the receptionist whether he might be on leave, or sick perhaps?

"I'm not sure whether he's on leave or traveling," she said. "Mr. Hastings does travel a lot. But I'll give him your message when he does come in." She suggested that in the meantime I talk to Issac Cole, another of the management negotiators.

Tipping my hand somewhat, I asked Cole whether management hadn't found a few of the union's demands unreasonable. Cole got angry.

"I didn't find any of the union's demands unrealistic," he snapped. " assumed they were all made in good faith. . . It's a good contract. Management wouldn't have signed it unless we thought it was a good contract." Cole added, "I don't accept the premise that there has to be an adversarial relationship between management and the union." When I pressed him on this, he hung up.

I learned later the Department of Labor has historically been one organization where the traditional adversary relationship between unions and management has been successfully tempered, after a fashion.

When collective bargaining in the federal sector was recognized by executive order in 1962, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg made it a point of pride that his department would be the first to sign an agreement.

To achieve this goal, the story goes, he directed the department's negotiating team to make whatever concessions were necessary to the union. "Those of us who were all familiar with collective bargaining agreements in the private sector were appalled with that agreement," recalls Leonard Nichols, a department veteran who is a member of management's negotiating team. "We really gave them the store. And once we had a soft agreement to start with, it just kept getting mushier and mushier."

The natural tendency of many Labor managers to sympathize with their union extended into the most recent contract talks last April. Ben Segal, one of the negotiators for the department, is a dues-paying member of the union he was negotiating with (although as special assistant to an assistant secretary he is too far up the management ladder to benefit directly from the contract).

"We recognize the union, accept the union and want it to be more effective," Segal told me. "We in the Labor Department are, in effect, preaching to employers about fair practices and labor-management relations, and I think that gives us an obligation to practice what we preach."

Many of the department's negotiators during the latest contract talks had no previous experience with collective bargaining on either the union or management side, while others were drafted as negotiators at the last minute and had little time to familiarize themselves with the issues.

Nichols recalls that he'd just returned from a two-week vacation and "barely had sat down in my chair before they told me to get over to the Georgetown Inn," where the negotiations dragged on for several weeks at government expense.

"That whole issue of flexitime was so darned complicated," added Nichols, "that at one point we were offering them something much more generous than they were asking for."

Across the table, on the other hand, the union negotiators knew what they wanted and were seemingly less concerned with setting an example of nonadversarial behavior.

"We behaved like a union -- self-interested," says Jeffrey Salzmann. "And we achieved accordingly."

Just how much they achieved will only become evident over the next few years, but a first impression can be gleaned by looking at the fine print in the contract.

There are, as expected, provisions that go beyond the civil service laws in making it harder to fire or otherwise discipline a nonperforming employee. If a supervisor wants a statistician to hit his calculator a little more often and accurately, for example, he must think twice before sidling up to the accountant's desk and saying so. According to the new contract, if the supervisor later attempts to suspend, demote or fire the employee, such "oral counselings, warnings, reprimands or admonishments" may not be used as evidence at the required disciplinary hearing. Only warnings in written memo from court.

If the supervisor, daunted by the task of building a paper record against his no-account accountant, decides to use the time-honored technique of transferring him to an open slot in Spokane or Dubuque, he again runs afoul of the contract. Under the new scheme if an employee doesn't accept a transfer, the department has to try to find him another job in Labor's Washington offices -- and provide any training necessary.

Other provisions, which appear blandly innocuous, assume more meaning when they are explained by Local 12 officers. There is, for example, a clause entitled "work plans," which says that "employees have the right to propose new and innovative ways to carry out the mission or function of the department. . . [and] when feasible the department will implement the plan. If an employee's plan is rejected, the department will inform the employee, in writing, as to why it was rejected."

Sounds like nothing more than an official tribute to the suggestion box. But here was how union negotiator Gifford illustrated its importance:

"Suppose you're an investigator in the Bureau of International Labor Affairs and your job is to go out and examine the records of shoe companies or electronic firms to see how foreign imports are affecting their business. But you're also going to law school at night, and the traveling is interfering with your classes.

"Under the work plan provision, you could decide that it's unnecessary to go out in the field because you could really do the whole thing by phone and mail. You could just send forms to the company to fill out and analyze them back in Washington. It might save the government money."

"But what if you send out those forms," I asked, "and the companies send back false information that suits their own interests?"

"Well, management would have the right to bring up that point in its written explanation of why your suggestion isn't feasible." Gifford added that, of course, the union could disagree with management's explanation, and maybe even take the matter to arbitration.

On paper, many of the contract's provisions look sensible enough -- unusual, to be sure, but phrased in language that truly cooperative union and management teams might be expected to arrive at. Most of the rights it grants employes are followed by reasonable-sounding qualification:

Employes can play their radios "so long as the use does not disturb the productivity of the employe." They can choose their own hours, but their bosses can set "coverage requirements" to assure, for example, that there are enough people to answer the phones at all times. They can work a 30-hour week, but only if they have built up a 10-hour credit by working overtime the previous week.

These are the sorts of innovations that might work in an environment where both managers and workers are motivated by a goal of performance -- like producing a good product -- or are afraid of the consequences of not performing -- like getting fired, or going out of business.

Unfortunately, it is this shared motivation to perform that is so notably absent from the federal government, and that, in my conversations, seemed particularly absent from the Deparment of Labor. The contract's talk of productivity, after all, takes place within the context of a civil service system in which productivity is rarely measured, and mediocre performance rarely punished on either an individual or collective level.

Historically, in this system, about the only assurance of the government's output has been the federal work ethic's fairly rigid control over input , "9 to 5" was the substance of this ethic, and "I'm giving you my 40 hours" its creed.

One reason the Department of Labor was willing to sign the agreement, according to management negotiator Lockwood, was that, "Basically, there aren't any tangible costs" -- no actual wage increases or budget-breaking fringe beneftis. Intangible costs, on the other hand, are not so easy to spot, particularly in an organization like the Department of Labor that produces an intangible product.

(Theoretically, at least the flexitime portion of Labor's experiment is being evaluated by the federal Office of Personnel Management, which is scheduled to announce its findings in 1982. But OPM's effort is already bogged down in disputes over whether its evaluation plan will actually measure anything worth measuring. The General Accounting Office, for example, has pointed out that OPM has no plans to ask the public if the services provided by the government offices using "flexitime" have improved or deteriorated.)

It is quite likely that the "advances" embodied in the Department of Labor contract will spread to other agencies, as the AFGE is already urging. Barring hard humbers proving either an increase or decrease in productivity, the basic ratchet-rule of collective bargaining can be expected to take hold. As AFGE's director of labor-management services, John Mulholland, put it, "Once one agency gets a new package of benefits, it doesn't take long for the rest to catch up."

I decided to give Robert Hastings one last try. A dozen calls over two weeks had produced no response, and only one indication of Hastings' actual presence in the national capital area (he had been "in a meeting"). I dialed.

"Mr. Hastings isn't in right now."

"Is Mr. Hastings ever in?"

"I'm sorry, but he's always in a meeting or out of the office. That's what he does all day."

I thought of Hastings a few days later when I read a report which said that the Office of Personnel Management was considering a new experiment in "alternative work scheduling." This experiment, I read, wil go one step beyond "flex time." It is called "flexiplace." Under it, a federal employe, if he can perform his work at home, would not have to show up at the office at all.

Actually, I had heard this idea before, from Paul Gifford, when he was discussing the demands the union had left to raise at the next round of contract talks.

"I could see," he had said enthusiastically, "where this contract could be improved . . ."