It cost organized labor $30 million to win the contract the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union signed last week with J.P. Stevens & Co.

And now the debate has begun over what the labor movement got for its money.

The union spent up to $15 million over the last four years on the fight, an amount believed to be the largest spent by a union in a single organizing attempt aimed at a single company.

"Certainly, I can't think of anything that rivals it," said Rudolph Oswald, research director for the AFL-CIO.

Added to that was $4 million pumped in by the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department and millions spent by the old Textile Workers Union of America, which had been battling Stevens for 13 years before merging with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in 1976 to form ACTWU.

In all, according to labor and industry sources, ACTWU and its supporters spent at least $30 million in the great textile labor war that spanned nearly two decades, spawned books, songs and a movie, and now, a great deal of speculation about what effect, if any, it will have on the future of American organization labor.

To the Union, the 2 1/2-year contract signed last week is a symbolic victory with practical potential.

To the company, which refuses to say exactly how much money it spent to try to keep the union out, the contract is an affordable peace -- one Stevens official called it a "sweetheart deal" -- a settlement that has no widespread practical significance.

"The union spent a lot of money spreading their poison . . . , and we don't think they got much for their money," a company spokesman said.

ACTWU President Murray H. Finley disagrees. He said the "poison" really was the truth about the company's antiunion activities and that, in the end, the truth gave the union freedom to exist at Stevens.

"The door is open, and now we're in," Finley said. "You just can't measure this kind of thing in dollars. This was a campaign for human rights and justice. We don't measure expenses in a campaign like this."

Such is the stuff of victory in a war in which both sides gave as good as they got. ACTWU, the institutional descendant of immigrant workers who fought to organize the garment industry in the North in the 1920s and 1930s, now occupies 10 percent of Stevens' 80 plants, most of which are in the South.

Stevens, which joined the union-shy textile industry's migration to the South in the early 1900s, has vowed to work within the law to keep unions out of its other plants. But even that vow is a real victory to Finley, who pointed out that the company was found guilty of unfair labor practices 22 times in the 17-year war.

"At least we've gotten them to fight fair," Finley said.

Some in the labor movement, Industrial Union Department chief Howard D. Samuel among them, believe the Stevens camapign was one ACTWU in particular, and organized labor in general, could not afford to lose.

"This was no ordinary labor battle. There were many matters of principle involved," Samuel said. "I believe if the union had not won a contract, it would have been difficult for them to organize anybody else in the textile industry."

If the ACTWU-Stevens contract sparks a "major organizing drive that 10 years from now ends up with most of the textile industry being unionized, that clearly would be worth the $15 million to $30 million spent on the Stevens campaign," Samuel said.

However, Samuel agrees, his is a big "if."

Only 15 percent of the nation's nearly 900,000 textile workers belong to unions. An estimated 43 percent of the 7,200 textile plants in the country are in the Southeast, a region regarded as staunchly resistant to unions. In contrast, 12 percent of the plants are in the Northeast, and 4 percent are in the Midwest, areas where organized labor has its greatest strength.

Finley said he understands the challenge. "But I'm convinced that if we have the energy and the determination, we can do it," he said.

He said ACTWU already has started sending literature to the 40,800 Stevens workers who remain outside the union's jurisdiction, and that the "portability" provision contained in the current contract is a major gain the union can employ to get agreements at other Stevens plants.

Basically, the provision means that if, in the next 18 months, the union can organize more Stevens units, the company is bound to offer those new locals a contract similar to the one it signed last week with workers at seven plants in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and at three others in West Boylston, Ala., High Point, N.C., and Allendale, S.C.

However, during that period, the union won't be able to use the "extraordinary remedies" -- posting notices on plant bulletin boards and speaking to workers inside the plants and on plant grounds -- allowed by the National Labor Relations Board because of Stevens' repeated labor law offenses. Forfeiture of those organizing rights for the next 18 months was a "major contract concession" claimed by the company.

The union also agreed to abandon the weapons often credited with forcing Stevens into an agreement -- the national boycott of Stevens products and the "corporate campaign" to knock Stevens officials off the boards of directors of other firms.

"Time will tell whether or not this contract was successful in getting other textile workers to unionize," Finley said. "But for now, we've demonstrated that we're willing to go all out to support justice for workers in the hardest situations, and that we're willing to do it with vigor and intelligence and imagination.

"People know that, now. Workers know that, and I don't think they'll be as afraid to join a union as they were before we got this contract. That means something," Finley said.