AS PART OF the current social retrenchment, many of organized labor's prize programs are coming under attack. From labor's perspective this is unfortunate and unfair, since U.S. worker protection programs are generally primitive by the standards of most European countries. Labor has put itself in a vulnerable position, however, by pushing some gains it has made through federal intervention to indefensible extremes. A case in point is an array of federal compensation programs for job-related injuries and illnesses.

Most U.S. workers are covered by state programs that vary widely in benefit levels and adequacy of coverage. Workers suffering from occupational diseases are rarely helped by these programs, and about 10 million workers aren't covered at all. Because most state programs are run through private insurance carriers and involve endless legal haggling, less than 60 percent of over $15 billion now paid yearly by employers actually reaches workers. Labor would like to see more adequate and nationally uniform workers' compensation programs. Any move in that direction, however, runs up against the bad example set by those few programs that are federally run. Principal among them is the longshoremen's and harbor workers' compensation program scheduled for Senate Labor subcommittee hearings this week.

The notion of running a squeaky clean program on the nation's waterfronts is, no doubt, visionary. Dockwork, moveover, is hazardous, so compensation costs are bound to be relatively high; and balancing the interest of workers and employers in these cases is always tricky. But provisions of the program statute -- in particular, the expansive amendments slipped into the law in 1972 -- have certainly pushed the program beyond reasonable limits.

Coverage is now extended vaguely to hundreds of thousands of workers who may in the course of a day's work, stray close to the water's edge. Benefits, ranging up to $456 a week, frequently make the worker better off than he was before his injury because they are taxfree, fully indexed for inflation and, if an injury is deemed "permanent," may be kept even if the recipient goes back to work. Workers' claims are presumed valid unless the employer can prove otherwise, and the worker may select his own physician to verify his injuries -- a feature said to have been abused by labor racketeers who engineered huge rises in claims and then extorted payments from employers to return caseloads to a normal level.

Since 1972 years claims have tripled, insurance costs have soared and more and more shipping is diverted to Canada and Mexico. Labor subcommittee Chairman Don Nickles and Sen. Sam Nunn have introduced legislation to return the program to more tolerable levels. As the leaders of organized labor prepare their response, they should remember that defending every detail of a runaway program does no favor to the cause of responsible labor protection.