Cloaked in darkness thickened by rain and heavy gases from a slag mountain smoldering nearby, the ramshackle Panilofski mining quarter comes to life in early morning when men drift out of their apartments and head for the coal mines.

The pressure has been great on more than 45 coal mines around this city to meet production quotas. In November, many had to work overtime shifts each Sunday. Some mines failed to pay the double overtime wages required by law for three out of five Sundays, yet the miners continued to work without complaints.

Of all the ailing segments of the Soviet Union's troubled economy, coal production may be the sickest. In the first 11 months of 1980, it totaled 653 million tons, ending hopes that the country could reach the year's goal of 745 million tons. The target figure itself was considerably below the production figure set by the Communist Party at its 1976 congress -- 805 million tons of coal in 1980.

The impact of this shortfall ripples through the rest of Soviet basic industry. Steel production, electricity and other major areas that depend on coal also are significantly below target and are likely to remain so through this decade.

Soviet news media have conceded that part of the reason is that the shaft mines of this city of 1 million and other traditional mines in the industrial heartland are exhausting their best veins of coal after decades of intense mining.

They also acknowledge that plans for quick exploitation of the huge surface deposits in Siberia have fallen behind schedule because of poor planning, labor shortages and difficult work conditions. Temperatures can plunge to 50 degrees below zero in winter or soar to more than 120 in summer.

A visit here discloses other reasons for the lagging performance that the official statistics and admissions hint at, but do not make clear. In interviews with miners, their families and others during a 3 1/2-day visit to Donetsk last month, workers described themselves as victims of lack of rights and grim working and living conditions that led them to conclude they should do no more than the minimum amount of work necessary to get by.

A Western colleague and I were invited to visit this grimy mining city by Alexei Nikitin, a mining engineer who came into conflict with authorities in 1970, when he was fired from his job, and who spent seven of the last 10 years in psychiatric hospitals and prisons.

Free of official guides, we were able with Nikitin's help to meet with a number of miners and other Donetsk residents. But we were followed throughout by agents of the KGB secret police.

We met with officials of the Gorlovka mine, one that is regularly shown to visiting foreigners. Their version of Donetsk bore little resemblance to what we saw and heard during our time with Nikitin. We were unable to meet officials at the Butovka mine, where foreigners are almost never taken.

We were able to see a darker side of Soviet life and to talk with those persons whose complaints and grievances are never aired in the official media here.

Ironically, it is the Kremlin's official insistence that "work is the duty and the moral obligation of every ablebodied citizen" that is being used as a weapon against worker activists. Enshrined in the labor code, it gives authorities enormous leverage in dealing with disgruntled or politically unruly workers.

There is no unemployment compensation for those who lose their jobs. If dismissed from a job, workers normally are given several weeks to find a job or face a criminal charge of "parasitism," which could bring a one-year sentence in a corrective labor camp for a first offense.

Workers here only shrugged when asked about the formation of independent trade unions in Poland.

Unlike the Poles, who have drawn strength, and at times even protection, from the Roman Catholic Church, Soviet workers have no resource to any center of moral leadership outside the party or party-run union. Their position in many ways resembles that of a worker in an American company town where a single corporation dominates its life, including the local police -- except that here, the company town is backed by the full power of the state. -

Indeed, union, party and enterprise leaders together try to act as moral watchdogs over their labor force. Miners described weekly "clean Tuesdays" or "clean Thursdays" at their mines, when workers arrested for drunkenness by the police or facing complaints of boisterous behavior from neighbors must face "commradely" disciplining and character improvement.

"A worker usually is fired for drunkenness, truancy, or violations of technical safety, or they can fire him as part of a so-called reduction of staff," Nikitin said. "But they may forgive their own people [party members] of drunkenness. There is no single standard; there are no strict rules on whom to fire and whom not to fire.

"Sometimes they demand that the wife accompany the miners and they curse the violators in the presence of their wives."

As described by others, the "clean loyal workers room to "settle scores" -- as one man put it -- by lodging complaints of noisiness or unruly behavior in the cramped and frequently communal living quarters built by the mines for their workers. These complaints can lead to loss of vacation privileges, or seniority on waiting lists for better housing or other living improvements.

This interlocking official power leaves workers divided and feeling powerless to redress their grievances.

"If you complain to some higher authority, they refer it to the lower authorities who ignore the complaints. The official union is worthless."

In the wake of the Polish upheaval, Soviet media have increasingly publicized union crimes that in their own way strongly support what the Donetsk miners say. For example, the trade union paper Trud in consecutive issues in November told of two union leaders who utterly failed to defend their workers from managers in an Odessa machine plant and a mine east of the Urals.

The machine plant union man connived with managers to deprive workers of bonuses and overtime time. "His position is clear: to agree with anything the administrators want," Trud reported. The mine's union leader "didn't make a single step without the director approving. He was scared of anything that could annoy the director."

Donetsk workers scoffed at these official press accounts, saying they only scratch the surface of their own conditions.

Long inured to seeing promised overtime and bonus pay reduced or even refused, several miners said they believe the mine directors sell the coal privately to factory directors grown desperate since their own supplies have run short in part because the actual coal produced has been hidden.

Although they had no concrete evidence to back up such allegations, their belief is deep-seated and underscores the lack of trust the workers have in their managers and union leaders, whom they tend to lump together.

Feeling themselves surrounded by indifference and rejection, the workers say they resort to illegal nestfeathering on the ground that they cannot get the help they need to live decent lives.

One described the scene: "In the mines, they steal timber, which is used to build private homes if they can find a way to do that, or they steal coal for themselves. This is because the coal that is supplied to the miners for their personal use is usually of very low quality -- there is a lot of smoke from it, and it gives low temperatures and a lot of cinder and ash."

Most mine families live in small apartments heated by coal stoves and many use kerosene burners for cooking. There are many cold-water flats and few are large enough to contain a full-sized bathtub.

In the mines, it was said, despite insistence that norms be fulfilled, the bosses are chiefly interested in avoiding trouble. Quantity of output, rather than quality, is the goal, a reflection of imbedded Soviet industrial practices that reward gross production.

"From the point of view of the bosses, if a worker comes to the job on time and leaves on time and doesn't drink, he is a good worker regardless of how he works," said Nikitin, formerly a party activist and active mine union member. "The content of the work doesn't matter. At times, it is difficult to provide a worker with something to do, because delays in deliveries can leave him with no work for the whole day."

Numerous Soviet workers describe a seemingly impregnable management system of mine officials and union officials backed up by the state in the form of the mine party committee and the shadowy, but ever-present organs, the security agents and their informers, themselves miners who can improve their own lots by keeping an eye on colleagues.

Working together, they determine who works what shifts, how bonuses will be handed out, and who receives scarce new apartments.

Basic to the miners' existence is the imposition of piece-rate "norms" for each shift. But the labor force in a typical Donetsk coal mine is divided into brigades within specialities. They compete, in effect, against each other to reach the minimum output or exceed it and thus receive a monthly bonus of up to 15 percent or more.

Ordinary miners, these workers say, are invariably matched against better equipped "achievers," or "shock workers," chosen for their loyalty to party and mine officials. "They can have more modern tools, or more mine cars to haul away their work and the slag, or be assigned to especially productive areas," said one knowledgeable source.

The fundamental effect is to divide the labor force against itself. Differences in pay may average 120 rubles a month, with regular miners earning about 280 rubles monthly and "achievers" pocketing 400. Bitter grudges, and payline fights between the regulars and the favored party stalwarts are described by the sources.

According to Nikitin, many of the estimated 400 Communist Party members in the approximately 3,000-strong work force of his former mine are "achievers" supplied with better equipment and thus better able to fulfill the norms.

Nikitin's objections to such practices led him into opposition with mine and party officials more than a decade ago. His version of the life of Butovka miners matches other accounts of Soviet labor practices that have emerged in the "worker dissident" movement that appeared in the late 1970s and continues as a distinct part of Soviet dissent.

A politically trusted worker can shorten the long waiting time for a private apartment, receive more of the coveted vacations and health cures at Black Sea resorts, obtain credit at state stores unavailable without the backing of the mine, and even get into the tortuous waiting line for a car, which is chiefly monopolized by the mine, union, and security hierachy.

For the miners of Donetsk, these are matters of vital importance. The wait for a separate apartment can be 15 years. According to officals of the Gorki mine, one of the city's newest, most of the work force there lives in communal apartments and it is likely this is true for much of the rest of the city.

Waiting lists for housing and other amenities provide the authorities with additional means of control. For example, as retold by several workers, tardiness to work by 30 minutes even once in a year can be used by the administration to fire a worker outright, or at the least, deal him a severe reprimand.

A serious official rebuke can bump a worker down the myriad waiting lists for a better life, and even result in a reduction in his bonus, the proceeds of which are turned over the state. "It can be used as an excuse when they want to get rid of someone," said one source, "though usually, if a person is on good terms with them, he could be late once or twice a year by a half-hour and not suffer from it."

But workers who step out of line by complaining too much can easily by fired for minor infractions of labor discipline. However, as these often are skilled people, frustrated because their knowledge is wasted or ignored, the mine sometimes will hire them back quickly to avoid falling behind in the production schedule.

For the individual, a firing brings the promise of unending future trouble, since the dismissal is marked forever in the labor performance book every Soviet citizen is required to keep and show to potential new employers. In addition, loss of seniority and a drop to the bottom of the waiting lists deals a separate blow. The lesson is learned: keep your mouth shut.