THERE ARE hard times for the Soviet working class. Although many Western anaylses treat reform as a grand struggle between General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and conservative bureaucrats, over the next few years the big victims of reform will be ordinary workers (and the more ordinary they are, the more trouble they'll be in). So many of Gorbachev's policies are designed to squeeze the proletariat that one of his most ardent supporters recently asked in Pravda whether itwas "fair to make the working people shoulder the burden of the transition period to the new system of management of the economy?"

It is astonishing that this question should even be asked openly, and yet Gorbachev's rhetoric has targeted workers almost from the moment he came to power in March 1985. In one of his first speeches as general secretary, he told a gathering of industrial executives that when a plant fails to meet high production standards "this should inevitably have an effect on the material position of its workers." Labor costs, he said, had to be cut "decisively." At the outset this seemed mere talk and exhortation. Now his irate words ("Is a socialist state a state of idlers?") are being matched by policies that affect almost every aspect of industrial work.

Foremost is the question of pay. Wage "leveling" is treated by the new leadership as one of the most pernicious trends of the Brezhnev era; Gorbachev told the Italian Communist paper L'Unita last spring that his "prime task" is to reverse it. New legislation has widened previous pay differentials by more than a third -- between skilled and unskilled workers, between high- and low-quality work, etc. But enterprises have at the same time been told that while offering these incentives they have to keep overall labor costs down: In other words, take from Pyotr to pay Pavel. The result, Gorbachev has announced, is that at some plants workers' pay has already been cut 20 to 30 percent. He insists, somewhat implausibly, that those affected are not complaining: He claims they are too proud to want to be paid for shoddy work.

The new reformist policies do not simply cut pay. They demand longer and harder work. Soviet officials and reform economists emphasize that more advanced equipment will not by itself cure Soviet economic ills. To restore robust growth, they say, high technology must be utilized by the labor force over two and even three shifts per day. Gorbachev has publicly upbraided the state-controlled trade unions for resisting a demanding, round-the-clock schedule.

Pay incentives and longer hours reflect the leadership's determination to get as much as possible out of the Soviet work force, which began to grow more slowly in the past decade. Yet Gorbachev's policies are far more than a response to labor scarcity: they fundamentally re-draw the economic rules. The Soviets now recognize that much of their economy is so unproductive that it doesn't need nearly as much labor as it employs. Thus the railroads, whose inefficiency has long been a drag on other sectors, showed high productivity gains (7.5 percent) in 1986 by cutting excess workers. And the Soviet government reports that throughout the economy, labor-productivity goals have been met in large part by laying people off, by eliminating feather-bedding and enlarging job-descriptions -- what is officially called "the expansion of the practice of combining trades and duties." Surveying the results of this approach, Gorbachev now says the number of workers "released" will increase considerably. A top economist has estimated that 3 million will be fired; more feverish speculation runs to "tens of millions."

In a state whose claim to superiority over capitalism rests largely on having abolished joblessness, unemployment is a highly charged political issue. One of Gorbachev's closest advisers on reform, Tatiana Zaslavskaya, has said, "This is a difficult question for us and, therefore, our science does not have any amswer yet. But there is already a new institute dealing with this side of scientific and technological progress." Lest the prospect of further research not fully console workers, Gorbachev recently labelled unemployment "unacceptable." He and other officials seem eager to head off popular anxieties on this score, and the media have lately been full of reassuring talk about retraining and re-location to areas where workers are in fact needed. (In the United States, of course, "re-location" means you move to the Sun Belt; in the Soviet Union, to Siberia.)

Even the Soviet worker who hangs on to his job and learns to cope with the tough new work regime is being given more bad news by his leaders -- that living standards may not rise again in this decade. Through mid-1987, commodity-turnover targets, a measure of the overall supply of goods and service to the population, had not been met in a single Soviet republic except for Estonia; production targets for a long series of home appliances were also unmet; the population faced "an acute shortage of footwear," and so on.

The government's huge subsidies of food and housing are also under sustained attack by Gorbachev's economists. Abel Aganbegyan, now perhaps his most influential economic advisor, favors rent inreases that reflect the true cost of housing to the state. Leonid Abalkin, another reform advocate, spoke recently of a possible doubling in meat prices. Worse, all this comes at a time when the usual dodges that made the system more bearable for ordinary people are being put out of reach. As one Soviet citizen interviewed by Radio Liberty put it: "Before Gorbachev's reforms, I could take things home from the restaurant, but to do so now is taboo. I am going to have to compensate for this loss somehow."

Draconian measures are far from the whole of Gorbachev's reform effort. Yet squeezing the workers has become central to his program because so many other elements of his strategy have failed to pay off, or are being introduced more slowly than he had forecast. Over the past two years, he has identified the introduction of new and more sophisticated machinery into Soviet industry as the keystone of improved economic performance. But as Pravda recently complained, not one ministry responsible for "machine building" is meeting its targets. In particular, production of high-tech equipment is falling short. CIA estimates show only 1 1/2 percent growth in industrial production in this period. For 1987 as a whole, one highly respected consulting firm on East European economies, PlanEcon, Inc., now forecasts the third lowest growth-rate in postwar Soviet history.

If economic recovery is going to be slow, Soviet leaders will search out any improvements that can be made quickly. Squeezing workers will look like one way of getting an early payoff. (To date, only 14 percent of the labor force is covered by new incentive-pay policies, and at some key enterprises, the figure is as low as 3 percent.) Similarly, Prime Minister Ryzhkov admits that 13 percent of Soviet enterprises operate at a loss (others have used higher figures), and Aganbegyan argues that if poor performers cannot shape up, they will have to be closed down.

This program will not be put in place without political turbulence. Already there are signs of ideological controversy over how workers fit into reform. On one side are those analysts and writers -- Gorbachev's supporters -- who enjoy the chance to speak out at last, who resent "the bogus principle . . . that you can criticize anyone except a worker." For these economic rationalizers, inequality is a fact of life, no matter what the goals of socialism may have been. Anatoly Dobrynin says it simply: "Those {workers} who lag behind will suffer . . . ."

Against this view, many Party traditionalists are eager to parade once more as protectors of the working class. The "false egalitarianism" of the Brezhnev period may seem dated alongside Gorbachev's essentially middle-class program, but the old Bolshevik themes have not yet lost their punch. Some writers have already begun to suggest that reformers want to increase social stratification. Stirring up class resentments may well be the most serviceable strategy that could be used against Gorbachev.

Such counter-attacks on Gorbachev may be held in check for a time while his critics see how the workers themselves react to the new order. The Russian people, famed for accepting burdens, are being squeezed at the workplace at the very time that they are also being urged to speak up about their problems, to protest abuses and inequities.

Two recent strikes have demonstrated that Gorbachev is playing with a potentially dangerous formula. Moscow News reported in mid-September that drivers in Chekhov south of Moscow had stopped work over the introduction of incentive-based wage scales. They complained that no system of bonuses and penalties could be fair as long as they had to operate old buses that always broke down. Another group of workers outside Moscow went on strike with the same complaint: "You cannot make a watch with an ax."

No policies will be undone because a few bus drivers in the provinces don't like them. But as a steadily larger portion of the working class comes to feel the bite of reform their dissatisfaction is certain to grow. If so, popular protest against reform may yet prove to be one of the main dangers Gorbachev faces.

Stephen Sestanovich, who worked on Soviet affairs for the NSC staff from 1984 until 1987, is director of Soviet studies for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.