For Ephraim Oakley, a 41-year-old black and a skilled welder, it is a promise gone sour.

The federal government came here in 1969 and told thousands of blacks in the Philadelphia metropolitan area that it would win them access to skilled union jobs in the lucrative construction industry.

The government was selling something called the Philadelphia Plan, and Oakley bought it "lock, stock and barrel."

Now, 11 years later, Oakley gets angry when he thinks of his $15,000 investment in welding equipment.

"Because those damned people" in Philadelphia Local 420 of the Steamfitters "won't let me into their union, I'm losing thousands of dollars in work," Oakley said.

Without the union member's book, he said, he cannot get the "steady, top-of-the-line building jobs" he needs to support his wife and four daughters. t

"Man, this ain't no joke," Oakley said. "I'm being penalized for being a nigger."

His bitterness masks the ambiguity of his present circumstances.

Oakley is not poor. He said he earns enough to keep one daughter in college and to maintain his own home and a small welding shop here. When pressed, he concedes that he is "probably better off today" than he was in September 1969, when the government implemented the Philadelphia Plan -- the first federal effort to use minority hiring "goals" and timetables to end job discrimination in construction and other industries.

The rub is that the plan was supposed to make him equal -- a welder among welders earning the best money for the best work, Oakley said.

"I've passed every damned welding test I ever took," he said, showing his certification papers. "But without that union book, I ain't equal. I'm just another nigger with a skill."

Oakley's tale is a good example of what has happened in the last 11 years to the government's efforts to bring local equality to tradition-bound industries such a construction, in which racial exclusion is a matter of historical record.

There have been successes. In 1969, for example, the highly paid unions of iron workers, plumbers, steamfitters and pipefitters, sheet metal workers, electrical workers and elevator constructors in the Philadelphia area had a minority membership of less than 1 percent.

All of those unions were targeted for "affirmative action" in the Philadelphia Plan.

Today, the six unions claims a 12.1 percent minority membership.

There have been failures. The 12.1 percent figure is well below the government's arbitrary goal of 19 percent to 26 percent minority members -- a 1973 goal still in effect for the Philadelphia area.

When the 1973 goal was set, the area had a 34.4 percent urban minority population and a suburban minority population of 20 percent.

Also, critics charge that the unions' 12.1 percent figure is "soft" -- the unsupervised product of frequently erroneous self-reporting.

This mixed record in Philadelphia is typical of the country at large; the Philadelphia Plan has 31 cousins in effect in other parts of the nation. Nowhere have the federal plans won rave reviews. But nowhere, either, have these earliest of affirmative action plans left black-white workplace relationships exactly the way they used to be.

This construction industry affirmative action, moreover, had more than simple race-based resistance to overcome. There have been three recessions since the Philadelphia Plan was put into effect. Construction was hard hit in each of them. High unemployment makes for hard desegregation. However they might feel about accepting blacks in their unions in good times, whites are likely to be less accepting in bad.

On the other hand, it is precisely in times of high unemployment that affirmative action becomes most important to blacks, as well as to government strategists seeking selective ways to reduce black unemployment without pumping up the economy and fueling inflation.

"To me, this plan speaks to the most critical issue in America," said Ronald Taylor, the named plaintiff in a class-action suit filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on behalf of himself and blacks like Oakley.

"You aren't anything in this country without a job. And to me, this whole thing is about who is going to work in America and who isn't," Taylor said.

The suit, Taylor vs. the U.S. Department of Labor, charges that the Philadelphia Plan failed because the government didn't take necessary actions against unions and contractors to make it work.

It is the first such petition ever to come to trial involving the current Philadelphia Plan.

The outcome of the trial could greatly affect the operation of similar affirmative action programs across the country by strengthening or weakening federal enforcement procedures.

In the beginning, there was politics.

In the 1968 presidential race, frontrunners Richard M. Nixon was appealing to black voters with offers of "jobs and dollars" and "black capitalism" instead of welfare and social programs.

Nixon won. And in September 1969, his administration implemented the "revised" Philadelphia Plan.

Intended or not, the plan effectively hit organized labor, a major, traditional Democratic constituency, where it hurt -- job control.

Labor leaders, icluding the late AFL-CIO President George Meany, fought the program in the courts and in Congress on the ground that it was an unfair, destructive intrusion into free trade unions.

In December 1969, for example, organized labor fought and lost a major congressional battle to eliminate federal funding for Philadelphia Plan-type programs. Undaunted, labor kept up the struggle. By the time of the 1972 presidential election, labor was winning some concessions from a Nixon administration that had begun openly wooing the nation's unionized "hard hats".

Arthur A. Fletcher, the black assistant labor secretary under Nixon who pushed the Philadelphia Plan, says that he was one of the "concessions" the administration gave to labor.

"My job became a political issue," Fletcher said in an interview. "The labor leaders said they would withhold support from Nixon unless I was out . . . I didn't campaign for the Republican presidential candidate in 1972."

The Nixon administration denied it was backtracking on the affirmative action issue. And, indeed, the Philadelphia Plan-type programs continued to grow, albeit slowly.

By 1977, for example the Office of Federal Contract Complience had approved 49 similar plans for other major cities, including Washington.

Some of the plans were "imposed" and other were "voluntary," but all had the federally influenced objective of increasing minority participation in skilled craft unions and jobs.

The minority hiring goals in the 31 remaining plans will be superseded "within the very near future" by new employment guidelines for builders holding federal contracts worth $10,000 or more, according to OFCC officials.

Unlike the current goals, the new minority hiring numbers will be based on an area's "workforce, demographic (racial composition of population) or other relevant data," according to the April 7, 1978, OFCC announcement in the Federal Register.

In that same announcement, the OFCC, for the first time, established a separate, nationwide construction employment goal: 16.9 percent by March 1981 for women.

But skeptics, such as Oakley and other backing the federal suit in Philadelphia, argue that none of the goals will be met if the government doesn't take enforcement measures.

"We're saying in the suit that successive presidential administrations, including the Carter administration, have made political decisions not to enforce the Philadelphia Plan because of opposition from politically powerful unions," said Herbert Hill, a consultant to the plaintiffs and former labor affairs director of the NAACP.

Federal officials, while acknowledging some continued union opposition to government-set hiring goals for construction, deny that they have bowed to "union pressure."

"No one can rightly accuse us of that," said Weldon Rougeau, the OFCC director. "We are not afraid of anybody."

However, in an interview with The Washington Post and in his deposition in the suit, Rougeau acknowledged that the Philadelphia Plan and its off-spring have not worked well because of numerous administrative difficulties and an official "pattern of neglect" that existed "long before President Carter took office" in 1977.

Thomas J. MaGrann, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council of Philadelphia, disagreed, in an interview in his Philadelphia office.

"I'd be the first to admit that there was discrimination and bigotry in the past," said MaGrann, whose organization controls 98 percent of the major construction jobs in the Philadelphia area, according to area contractors.

"Ten years ago, we had seven or eight lily-white locals. Those were father-and-son locals, and all of the fathers and sons were white. Okay?

"but things have changed in the construction industry since then. We don't have any lily-white locals around here anymore. The Philadelphia Plan took care of that," said MaGrann, a 48-year-old Irish Catholic who rose through the ranks of the plumbers union to his present post.

The 12.1 percent area minority membership figure for the skilled craft unions, despite criticism that it is a "soft" number, seems to support MaGrann's contention. But it doesn't speak to another universal complaint: that minoirties disproportionately are placed in the lower-paying construction jobs.

For example, MaGrann's organization represents 84 area unions having a total of 60,000 members. But most of the blacks in the building trades association are among the 11,000 members of the laborers' locals.

Under the 1978 Multitrade Agreement MaGrann negotiated with the area's General Building Contractors Association Inc., unionized workers in the skilled trades now earn $12 to $14 an hour. Laborers earn $9.50 to $10 under the same pact.

Along with the lower pay for the laborers is lower mobility and increased vulnerability to downturns in employment. Unlike their more skilled brethern, who frequentlly can follow contractors to neighboring New Jersey and Delaware because their trades are in demand, the laborers tend to operate within rigidly defined geographical jurisdictions.

When those jurisdictions run out of jobs -- as has Chester, Pa., with its overall 18 percent unemployment rate -- the labors usually head for the unemployment compensation office.

"The Philadelphia Plan was supposed to help change all of that by giving more of the skilled jobs to blacks," said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which is handling the federal suit.

But he charged that both the unions and the contractors have used "with impunity" a variety of ruses to inflate their minority memborship and hiring figures.

Epharim Oakley is an example.

Over the last 10 years, whenever he worked, Oakley paid nearly $40 monthly in dues and fees to Steamfiters Local 420, even though he was never admitted to the union.

He is a "permit man" -- literally, a person who is permitted to work on a union job at union pay as long as he pays union dues.

Permit men don't draw union pensions, nor do they get full union health and welfare benefits, according to Oakley, Herbert Hill and others. Moreover, as has happened to Oakley occasionally, pemit men can be bumped off the job by "bookmen" -- bona fide union members -- at any time.

However, contractors employing Oakley can use him to meet their minority hiring goals in skilled craft jobs.