The angry young worker at the General Motors truck plant in Dunstable had just taken part in an unprecedented revolt against his own union leaders. He and 3,000 of his mates at an open-air meeting in a soccer field shouted down their local union leaders and rejected a plea to strike against the government's pay guideline.

"Let's stick to the five percent," the young worker declared, adding that the cost of not doing so will ultimately be fewer jobs for the rank and file of Britain's unions.

The worker's stand must have pleased Prime Minister James Callaghan, who, like most of the country, was watching the worker on the 10 o'clock television news. Callaghan now knows that his message has gotten across to the shop floor: If workers break the 5 percent guideline - and they can - he will deflate the economy and force even higher an already high level of 1.4 million unemployed.

The incident at Dunstable and other events here are strengthening the government's belief that it is winning the battle of the pay bulge, a battle that President Carter has now joined. All over the country, workers are challenging their union leaders - a rare phenomenon in this country of class solidarity - and backing Callaghan's anti-inflation call to curb wages.

Callaghan's battle is far from won. But the early signs of success could provide some useful lessons for Washington.

Only two weeks ago, popular commentators here all agreed that guidelines - or "pay policy," as they say in Britain - were dead. The leaders of the Trades Union Congress, Britain's AFL-CIO, had rejected the policy. The union chiefs then went to the Labor Party's annual conference, spurned Callaghan, and used their bloc votes to put Callaghan's own party on record against the device.

But Callaghan ignored those votes. He suspected that most of the country and many rank-and-file workers had absorbed the lesson of the last four difficult years and backed his approach.

Four years ago, price rises were running above 30 percent. But three years of pay restraint brought inflation down to 18 percent. For the first three of those four years, the real income of the country was falling. Now Britain is enjoying a modest boom and the losses in income have all been recovered.

That history is capsuled in abstract numbers. But to the worker who must give up his package vacation in Spain, fall behind in his car payments or cut down on meat at the dinner table, it has had a very concrete impact.

So on Tuesday, another 13,000 GM workers in Luton followed Dunstable's lead, hooted down their shop steward's call for a strike and ordered their officials back to the bargaining table. There the company is offering an average pay increase of 4.5 percent, and this could be doubled if the union agrees to step up its output per man.

Just Monday night, furious left-wingers who run Labor's national executive committee told Callaghan's Cabinet to their faces that they were "a bunch of Canutes."

But Callaghan senses that the popular tide is running with him. So he told the executive committee to "get stuffed" (or the prime ministerial equivalent of that favorite Labor expression).

At every opportunity, Callaghan and Denis Healey, his chancellor of the exchequer, have been explaining that the cholices are simple: Either pay is restrained or prices will soar. Another bout of near-runaway inflation is intolerable. So the government will have no choice but to tighten money, cut spending, raise taxes - squeeze out inflation by deflating the economy, robbing the nation of output, income and jobs.

(In theory, there is another option: Break union and corporation power to boost wages and prices by vigorous anti-trust action. But even the myth of anti-trust that survives in the United States has no meaning here.)

Every poll shows that Callaghan's economics are good politics. A recent one, conducted for the virulently Tory Daily Mail, shows that 70 percent with an opinion back the 5 percent guideline.

Even more striking, the poll showed that those who watched or read of the Tory's recent annual conference were more impressed by former leader Edward Heath than Margaret Thatcher, who displaced him. Heath had come out strongly for Callaghan's pay approach; Thathcer expressed carefully modulated opposition.

To be sure, the battle Carter is beginning in the United States is far from over here. Another 8,000 GM workers near Liverpool have voted to strike. The Ford workers are in the fifth week of a walkout, with the union demanding increases up to 60 percent.

But even Ford, a backlash has begun. Wives at some plants have organized their own demonstrations, demanding a secret ballot on whether to go back. That is so unusual that the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers has just ended its refusal to bargain and agreed to resume talks with the company over an 8 percent offer that had been previously spurned as not even worth discussing.

Power workers, who can shut down much of industry, are also insisting that 5 percent is unacceptable. The miners are demanding no less than 40 percent.

But Callaghan is telling anyone who will listen that the government is braced for a winter of strikes, that a stoppage of production is more bearable than another spurt of uncontrolled inflation.

Perhaps the key lession in all this is that Callaghan, with an election likely in the spring, is using his office as "a bully pulpit," Theodore Roosevelt's phrase for the presidency. Callaghan is teaching and preaching against a background of events that help get his message across. He has candidly recognized that guidelines won't work without the assent of workers. But he is refusing to accept that union leaders necessarily speak for workers on this issue, an astonishing position for a Labor premier.

His performance has won him praise from a most likely quarter. Christopher Booker, a columnist for the staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph, summed up Callaghan's performance at Labor's party conference this way:

"I am not urging that every reader should support him at the next election. But by golly, it was a demonstration of what true leadership should be about."