In some hard hat hall of fame, Brian Weber is surely immortalized as the good ole boy who fought a five-year battle against a quota system favoring blacks. He lost the case, but he popularized the catchy phrase "reverse discrimination."

Take a trip to the Gramercy, La., plant where it started, though, and things look a lot less simple. Black workers there do not view Weber as an enemy or themselves as victors.

Weber has treated them decently, tried to steer some to higher paying job openings and generally has "looked out for some of us," according to some black workers.

As for their "victory," blacks note that the modest training program that inspired the history-making lawsuit has been suspended because of layoffs and that in any case it did not exactly floorboard the engine of progress.

They don't particularly blame the company. Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co., Weber's employer, has developed as energetic and enlightened an affirmative action program as any major corporation, by all accounts a model program.

But the problem is this: even at its best, the process seems to spin its wheels in a mire of complexity and contradiction. And wherever you go, from the cool thrum of the high-tech computer companies to banking towers to the heat and clang of a plant floor, the message is that affirmative action does not create good jobs. And it has a difficult time moving people into good jobs.

As the U.S. Civil Rights Commission observed plaintively in a recent memo, supporters of affirmative action need to round up some "success stories" to fight the public perception that the policy is unworkable. Evidence of how success is achieved, or even a clear definition of what it is, they found, is "almost totally lacking."

Based though it is in group rights and statistical formulas, it seems anyone looking for a coping manual on this vast machinery must rely to a great extent on what the folks working the jobs say, the ordinary people who make it work, if it works at all, and who feel the consequences either way.

Kaiser's Gramercy plant, on the Mississippi about an hour's drive from New Orleans, is a part of the "billion-dollar strip" of oil, sugar, coal and steel refineries strung along the levee in a pungent haze, their towers belching flame.

Here, along the levee, men prowl the dusk with shotguns, looking for rabbits for supper, and the white teen-ager hanging out at the filling station with friends still answers a white visitor who asks directions to a house with, "That's the nigger section, ma'am."

A wiry black Gramercy worker named Kernell Goudia, 45, embodies both the hope and despair of the historic ruling in Weber. He is a graduate of the training program worked out with the United Steelworkers Union which skipped over Weber in order to admit a less-senior black.

In the case, the Supreme Court ruled, 5 to 2, that where there is a racial imbalance, a voluntary plan giving one race preference over another may be permitted, despite the prohibition against racial discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The court was addressing the sort of barriers faced by blacks such as Goudia (pronounced go-DAY), after his military service. Most vocational schools refused to admit blacks. Black schools taught only the lower-paying skills for "black jobs."

The training program enabled him to move into one of the prized craft jobs, repairing electrical instruments. He lives in a comfortable house with his family, holds a union title and enjoys a certain stature in the plant. But as a black, he says, he stands out.

Goudia and his co-workers measure their progress in terms like this:

"A white worker wouldn't let a black man touch his tools when Kernell was going through the program," co-worker Yahya Muhammed recalled. Muhammed was halfway though the training when it was suspended.

"Now, the rank and file, they've pretty much accepted that we're going to be working with them," Goudia said.

Like many of their counterparts around the country, they blame instead certain union officials and supervisors in particular and society in general.

According to court records in the Weber case, blacks constituted 39 percent of the workforce in the community (and 46 percent of the total population) but held only 15 percent of jobs at the Gramercy plant and 2 percent of the craft jobs. In the higher-paying skilled crafts, five of 273 jobs were held by blacks.

To these black workers, the phrase "reverse discrimination" seems ludicrous.

Since 1974, the special programs at 12 Kaiser plants have graduated 162 white men, 62 white women, 50 minority men and four minority women, according to a company spokesman. Only one still offers the training. "Right now, there are no positions to train for," he added.

In fact, at Kaiser, as elsewhere, concerns have shifted from hiring and promotions to layoffs.

"Opportunities laboriously created in the 1970s may be destroyed during hard times in the 1980s," warns the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, referring to existing layoff systems based on seniority. To break the "last-hired, first-fired" cycle, the commission has recommended a proportional layoff procedure and other alternatives. But these pit workers already on the job against one another, stir gut resentments and face a tough road through the courts.

Said Muhammed, "We need knowledge . . . . Most blacks I know work three or four jobs. They have to do that to make any money. But they get no legacy of knowledge to pass on . . . . The white man gets it working in his daddy's shop. My daddy ain't got no shop."

Weber, meanwhile, is still in his old job as a laboratory technician. He is not surprised, he said, to hear that the workers have some good things to say about him. "I was a union grievance official for years. I think the black people realized I represented them equally."

Weber, as it happens, is taking political science courses. He said he plans to run for office in his parish.

A continent away at Kaiser's white collar headquarters tower in Oakland, Calif., Bonnie Guiton, 40, a chic black woman, works out of an elegant corner executive suite with a sweeping, plate-glass view of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the buttery sun as it sets.

In her three years at the company, she has risen to vice president and general manager of Kaiser Center Inc., the headquarters complex.

In contrast to Goudia, she has an impressive string of education, credentials and awards. As recently as 15 years ago, she never would have been considered for a top post at Kaiser. As it is, Kaiser management sought her out.

She grew up in the area. Her mother was a maid, sometimes on welfare, and her father had left home. Guiton's first job was in a government mail room. It wasn't until she was 30 years old and had a daughter that she started college, working her way through as a secretary and ending up with a master's degree.

She became an assistant dean at Mills College in Oakland and later head of the Marcus A. Foster Educational Institute where Kaiser found her.

In recent ceremonies, the chairman of the board pinned a diamond tie pin on the executive whose equal employment opportunity efforts included "hiring Bonnie Guiton and shepherding her career."

Top Kaiser executives tell line managers that future promotions depend in part on how well they implement affirmative action programs, including pursuing an array of minority recruiting activities, establishing contacts with minority schools and community groups, planning management seminars and competitions which give points for affirmative action and adopting voluntary racial quotas for training programs.

"It happened to be a plus that I was black and female," said Guiton. "But I have never felt like an 'affirmative action hire' in that sense. I have to tell you it's been easy for me to feel like a colleague here at Kaiser. I'm treated as an equal."

Every worker has a different perspective. Estelle Wrisley, a white woman who coordinates international traffic for Kaiser, talking to far-flung steamship companies and plant managers, said, "If not for affirmative action, I don't think I would ever have been hired. I had 14 interviews before I was hired, and I was the first woman placed in a position like this."

And Andrea Robinson, a black female Kaiser labor attorney, said with a faint smile, "I think my position is the woman's slot. My predecessor was a woman . . . . My biggest gripe is that we are still called on to be super people."

Affirmative action is "always going to work some places better than others. "It depends on who the manager is," says Thomas Bowdle, director of equal employment affairs for Kaiser. "One of the best plants we have is in Jacksonville, Fla., and that's after a period of layoffs."

One of the spurs Kaiser uses to promote progress involves summoning managers from around the country to seminars in the coastal resort town of Carmel, Calif. "We want the superintendent from Gramercy to sit down in the same meeting with the one from, say, Trentwood Spokane, Wash. and hear how they're handling it up there."

Kaiser's numbers look good: for instance, while its professional and managerial positions increased by 30 percent in the last decade, the participation rate for minorities increased by 232 percent and for women (including minorities) by 404 percent. That still leaves the company with 9 percent minorities (including women) in that category, and 7.5 percent women.

But, just as lousy numbers don't necessarily mean an employer is unfair, the Civil Rights Commission has said, good numbers don't prove an employer offers true equal opportunity.

However, Kaiser goes the extra mile. The company's policy includes such actions as getting a maitre d' fired when a restaurant or country club refuses to serve an integrated group of its employes. "It's the consistency," Bowdle said. "It doesn't improve your numbers, but it creates a value system."

Workers and others across the land seem to agree that each work setting requires a different and sometimes painful process of trial and error which may or may not add up, often in ways no one can chart, to change.

Switch to a different sort of industry and you run into a different need.

Jim Talley, a black graduate of Howard University here, like most of those with electronic engineering degrees, was able to pick his employer instead of the other way around. Interviewed by 30 companies, he had job offers from 15 or 20. "I was determined not to work in a program for blacks. I wanted to be viewed as an engineer, not an 'affirmative action hire.' "

He ended up at Hewlett-Packard Co., one of the oldest and largest of the silicon chip pioneers in the rolling coastal hills of California, known as Silicon Valley because of its concentration of high-tech computer companies.

Federal affirmative action enforcers under the Carter administration had singled out this and other high-tech industries for special pressure and criticism because they hold many jobs of the future. But that didn't work.

In California, for instance, the schools will turn out only one-tenth the number of electronic engineers needed over the next five years, by industry estimates.

"We're too desperate to care about race, color or plumbing," summed up one industry spokesman. A congressional report noted recently that the industry is even going to Japan and Korea to import skilled workers.

So, why aren't more minorities and women taking advantage of these job openings?

"The ones who are motivated to go to college at all tend to go into the higher-paying professions such as law or medicine, or they become teachers or social workers. That's their self-image. Those are their role models," summed up Ken Coleman, a black man who is manager of corporate staffing for Hewlett-Packard.

Isolation from peers can also be a problem, he added. Even educated blacks are sometimes reluctant to follow a company to a place like this one, where the population is only 4 percent black.

In order to overcome various blocks, Coleman and others believe it will take a lot more of the sort of aggressive and early outreach that snared Anthony Watkins, son of a taxi driver in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He was recruited by a Howard University professor who was looking for promising science students at black schools which lacked the capacity to train engineers. He took his finds to Howard under a specially funded program.

Now, at 27, Watkins is a production engineer in charge of "i.o.", (input-output memory) for the HP 3000 series computer.

The great historical tug and pull of economic growth and contraction has had its effects on the migrations of blacks, just as on other Americans, bringing blacks to Oakland to fill World War II buildup jobs, for instance, or out of the South to the manufacturing plants of the Northeast and now back to the Sun Belt South. But always before, the pattern of discrimination got built into the hiring and promotion structure, civil rights leaders say.

For Hispanics now concentrated in the Southwest, and for blacks in the South--both growth areas--there is a chance to use civil rights laws now in place to start afresh, and prevent recurrence of the old patterns from the ground up, says Eleanor Holmes Norton, former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission head, now a law professor at Georgetown. "But only if the government enforces the laws."

Still, employers who want to avoid real change usually can find a way to do that and still placate the enforcers, specialists say.

Containment and tokenism are among the dodges developed by some employers, according to sociologist Joe Feagin of the University of Texas, a specialist in the subject.

One of the most familiar defenses, tokenism, involves placing women or minorities in "conspicuous and/or powerless positions," or channeling them into job ghettos such as a "department of community affairs," Feagin said, isolating them from one another, from "important organizational networks" and from the path to real power.

Increasing the number of tokens can help reduce the stress and turnover rate, allow support groups to form and improve performance, some say.

On the other hand, using the level of complaints and lawsuits, rather than statistics, as a barometer for distinguishing among fair and unfair employers may not work so well either, according to many workers and specialists. The employers who try hardest to develop good programs may suffer more than their share of lawsuits and bad publicity.

"Maybe it's the consciousness-raising within the organization," suggested Joan Bicocchi, EEO administrator for a New Orleans Coca-Cola bottling plant. Sometimes, she said, echoing statements by numerous others, it boils down to employes' intimidating the boss, "especially if you're a consumer products company where your public image is important."

Some degree of federal enforcement is necessary to make affirmative action work, specialists say, but even the most impressive show of muscle sometimes proves futile.

For instance, in the costly, 10-year case of a Uniroyal Inc. plant, hailed as a showcase victory by civil rights groups, the government used its ultimate weapon--debarment of the company from all federal contracts. It won a multimillion-dollar back pay penalty for discrimination and a legal agreement to implement affirmative action measures.

After three years, all this has had no noteworthy effect on employment opportunities for women and minorities in the plant, which is suffering from an industry slump, according to company spokesmen. Federal officials say they cannot deny this, since they have failed to keep track of the company's employment figures.