The founder and publisher of a short-lived New York tabloid, Leonard Saffir, is scheduled to testify this week before a federal grand jury investigating the business activities of Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan.

The inquiry, involving the defunct New York Trib, centers on Donovan's role in the quick settlement of a one-day strike by members of the newspaper deliverer's union in January, 1978.

At the time, Donovan was a major financial backer and member of the Trib's board. The wildcat strike was settled after a meeting in a hotel bar and a series of late-night phone calls between Donovan and the head of the newspaper deliverer's union, Douglas LaChance, according to Saffir, who is now publisher of the Bridgehampton News on Long Island.

LaChance was subsequently convicted of labor racketeering in an extortion case on an unrelated matter and is serving a 12-year prison term.

The FBI questioned Saffir recently about a reported "agreement" that apparently followed the conversations between Donovan and LaChance.

Saffir said he was told by the FBI that, under the arrangement, a company known as Empire Trucking, which was formed to deliver the Trib from its printing plant to pickup points, agreed to fire its non-union drivers and hire members of LaChance's union.

Saffir said he never signed such an agreement and never heard of it until the FBI asked him about it several weeks ago.

Now, Saffir said, he isn't even sure that Empire Trucking, which "folded when we folded," ever had any non-union help to begin with.

The episode involving the Trib took place shortly after the new morning daily began rolling off the presses in a Somerset, N.J., printing plant on Sunday night, Jan. 8, 1978.

According to Saffir, the papers were to be picked up at the plant by Empire, which was specially formed as a so-called "relay company" to haul the papers to the New York metropolitan area. There they were to be picked up by the Metropolitan News Co. and a number of other newspaper distributors whose drivers belonged to LaChance's union.

"I didn't want to be in the circulation business," Saffir said in one of several telephone interviews. "I went to Carl Levy the head of the Metropolitan News and said, 'We're going to start a paper. Can you handle the distribution?' He said yes.

"I said, 'That's all I want to know. I don't want any drivers working for me.' Carl Levy set the whole thing up."

The Trib signed an agreement with Empire to drop the papers off in the metropolitan area "for a blanket price," Saffir says. The agreement itself "had nothing to do with union or non-union," he said, but the price was predicated on the drivers' being non-union. "The difference would have been a lot of money, probably double the salaries," Saffir said. He said that as far as he knows, the original price was adhered to.

The first press run of 250,000 was delivered and sold Monday, Jan. 9, without a hitch. But the next edition was hit by a wildcat strike. According to news accounts at the time, a number of LaChance's drivers refused to pick up the paper, apparently because Empire was not unionized.

However, Saffir recalls, "It was LaChance's drivers who were at the plant to pick up the papers the first night and it was LaChance's drivers who didn't pick up the papers at the plant the second night . . . . I don't know if Empire was in place at all the first couple of nights."

The Trib does not apear to have focused on the distinction at the time. Its lawyers simply went into state court on Tuesday, Jan. 10, and got a temporary restraining order against LaChance's union and a number of the distributors.

Donovan, meanwhile, apparently attempted to mediate the dispute, according to Saffir, who estimated that Donovan's company, Schiavone Construction of Secaucus, N.J., had invested about $350,000 in the paper and owned 20 to 25 percent of it.

According to Saffir, Donovan left the Trib's offices late Tuesday afternoon and met with LaChance and the union's attorney, Kevin McGrath, in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel. Saffir said he seized on the opportunity and sent an aide, Doug Prescott, over to deliver the court order to LaChance.

When Donovan returned to the Trib's offices, Saffir recalled, "he was angry that he was meeting secretly and here I had sent over the court order . . . . Donovan told me it wasn't settled at that point, but he was going to continue talking to them."

That night, around 11 p.m., Saffir said, "I went out to the printing plant not knowing whether we were going to publish or not." Meanwhile, he said, Donovan and La Chance kept talking by phone.

"Close to midnight," Saffir continued, "LaChance called me up. He wanted promises from me that I would sit down and draw up a special contract with him, with the union.

"I said if he wants to call me at the office and see me properly, okay, but at midnight I was not making any deals. I threatened him, said I'd dump the papers on his front lawn. He hung up on me. Donovan called me back and said LaChance was mad as hell. I stayed there. All of a sudden, the trucks came in and picked the papers up."

But once again, Saffir recalls now, "it was still the trucks LaChance had control of, which means they weren't non-union."

Afterward, Saffir said, both Donovan and union lawyer McGrath "kept after me" on several occasions to sit down with the union. Donovan, the former Trib publisher recalled, "called me up and said, basically, 'Hey, these guys are going to do it again.' "

Saffir said he did meet with McGrath about a month after the one-night strike, "just to discuss the possibility of getting a contract with the union," but nothing came of it.

Then the FBI called Saffir several weeks ago and asked him about "a second agreement" with Empire. "The FBI told me they found that Empire did get rid of the non-union drivers . . . a day or two after the dispute," Saffir said. "It's obvious they would have had to pay the union drivers more." Saffir said the FBI told him Empire claimed it had a second agreement with the Trib. "I told the FBI it's news to me."

Saffir added that the FBI told Empire it couldn't find a copy of the agreement either. He said he believed the FBI interviewed the head of Empire Trucking, but Saffir could not recall his name.

"I said it looks funny," Saffir said. "It's conceivable that Empire fired the non-union drivers and hired union drivers because they were told they were going to get a contract. It could have been that someone said okay, but there was never an agreement."

Asked who might have given that okay, Saffir said, "I have no idea."

Saffir said he assumes that Empire did have non-union drivers on its payroll for a brief time, but he isn't sure.

"Who the hell knows?" he said. "There was a company we were paying thousands of dollars to do a job. Could it have been a paper company? It could have been."

Neither the head of Metropolitan News, Carl Levy, nor McGrath, who was the union's lawyer, could be reached for comment. Donovan has adopted a posture of making no comments on any aspects of the investigation. LaChance is in prison for extorting more than $250,000 from various delivery companies.