As the United States gets mired deeper and deeper in recession, the same tired old complaints about imports reverberate in legislative halls. They're a convenient scapegoat, and there is nothing like rising unemployment to bring out the most virulent protectionist attitudes.

Thus, the depressed state of affairs in the domestic auto business has been blamed on imports, although muddle- headed management and extra-lush wage contracts played a large role in creating the mess. Yet, the $15 billion Japanese trade surplus with the United States, much of it representing auto sales, sits there, a convenient target for protectionists.

Last August, at a U.S.-Japanese conference in Oiso, Japan, that I attended, U.S. Trade Ambassador Bill Brock, Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and others warned Japanese officials that if they persisted in maintaining outmoded barriers to imports, their bilateral trade surplus with the United States was bound to stir up demands for restricting imports, as well as insistence that Japan foot more of the mutual defense bill in Asia and the Pacific.

Such a reaction has now taken place, even though focusing on bilateral balances is a tricky exercise: the United States, for example, will have a surplus of $9 billion to $10 billion with the Common Market countries this year-- but wouldn't want the Europeans to use that figure as an excuse for new import restrictions against this country.

The human suffering attendant on unemployment also provides a backdrop for press attention. A recent series in The Washington Post, subtitled "The Import Flood," noted that the United States is losing out in a production race to "upstarts" from abroad, even in high-technology items.

But it gave sympathetic attention to the charges of U.S. companies and unions that they were victims of unfair import competition, cheap foreign labor and undervalued foreign currencies. There was little said about the mistakes of the unions and industries themselves, or of the failures of American government economic policy.

It is a delusion to believe that trade policy can be a substitute for an effective national economic policy, or that the answer to competition from abroad is to choke off imports while subsidizing inefficient industries. If ever there was a graphic demonstration that such protection is a losing game in the long run, it is the desperate condition of Europe's outmoded industry after two decades of building artificial walls.

The answer to the problems created by rising imports lies elsewhere. First, despite budget constraints, "adjustment assistance" payments to affected companies and workers must be meaningful, not a token. Second, all countries, including Japan, must be persuaded to open their markets to fair competition from abroad, while countries such as France are encouraged to drop subsidies and other benefits that give their exports an unfair edge.

Third, American industries must become more competitive on their own in terms of quality and price. Better quality is going to take some new discipline on the part of both management and labor here. However, on the price competition side, there is ray of hope: Some sectors of the American labor movement are facing up to the need for adjusting wage scales that have scooted ahead in recent years.

Examples of the trend:

United Auto Workers officials, led by president Douglas Fraser, now acknowledge that a reduced paycheck is better than no paycheck. Thus, the union voted unanimously to discuss a proposal from the hard-pressed American Motors Corp. to lend the company $150 million through wage and benefit concessions. Two short weeks ago, the UAW refused even to consider the AMC proposal.

* General Motors and Ford Motor Co. cut fringe benefits for salaried employees, including the top brass, a step clearly necessary before the UAW begins talks Jan. 8 with both companies that could lead to compensation concessions or sacrifices of its own. Statements by union spokesmen indicate a desire to protect jobs, rather than drive the companies to the wall.

* Ford employees at a Livonia, Mich., plant decided to accept a reduced pay package in order to allow the company to bid successfully on a transmission contract that otherwise would have gone to a Japanese producer. At stake, and saved for the UAW: 1,500 jobs.

* The hard-nosed Teamsters Union not only is planning to substitute cost- of-living adjustments for direct pay boosts next year, but is phasing out a "featherbedding" rule that added to shipper costs after long-distance hauls.

* Armour & Co., the big meat-packer, signed an agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union that in effect freezes all wage and cost-of-living increases through 1985, in exchange for some security against unnanounced future plant shutdowns.

There is no joy in this festive season in seeing workers' benefits reduced. But there is a maturity in the present approach, the kind that would have served Great Britain well, if either British labor or the Labor Party had had guts or foresight. Labor-management economic statesmanship, not economic protection, is the route to solving these sticky problems.