Dan Sawyer thought his opponents were being selfish. He was the businessman's businessman, come to clean up the Government Printing Office for the Reagan administration, and all the unions could do was snipe.

Referring to the furloughs he has ordered for the GPO's 6,000 workers, Sawyer said, "The real economic impact of this is that they're not going to be able to go to Pizza Hut on Friday night. They're all screaming like pigs. It's absurd."

But from the point of view of the unions and the congressional committee that watches over GPO, the absurdity and bad faith are Sawyer's. They charge he has disobeyed Congress, distorted statistics and hired his own retinue.

A clash of wills, ideals and rhetoric reverberated throughout the federal government when President Reagan's lieutenants arrived in Washington. But rarely was the din as loud as when Danford L. Sawyer Jr. became the nation's "public printer" and took command of the GPO.

A former Florida advertising executive, a millionaire and a Reagan supporter since 1968, Sawyer said he was appalled by what he found at the GPO when he arrived last August. He told one columnist, "I don't want to sound like a revolutionary, but if the American taxpayers knew the kind of screwing they were getting in this operation, they'd all pick up a rifle and march on this place."

Blaming the Joint Committee on Printing, which oversees GPO, for condoning a taxpayers' nightmare did not endear him to the committee, particularly its chairman, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.). The result has been a turf battle over the GPO between Sawyer and the committee, complicated by the peculiar system in which a presidential appointee directs an agency that serves Congress.

Sparks flew early when Sawyer announced he would close 23 of the GPO's 27 bookstores because they were losing money. The committee in two resolutions advised Sawyer he needed its approval before any bookstores could be closed or any furloughs ordered. Sawyer has postponed action on the stores, but he argues that furloughs and similar personnel decisions are his alone to make. A dismayed staff member on the committee asked, "If he doesn't work for the Congress, whom does he work for?"

In the meantime, Sawyer has become a darling of conservative columnists and editorial writers because of his attacks on waste at GPO and his efforts to end what he sees as a drain on taxpayers. One editorial was headlined "Danford and Goliath" and began, "It's hard to find a hero these days. But . . . ."

In his speeches and interviews, Sawyer has argued that the GPO's employes are overpaid and inefficient. He cites figures showing that GPO craft workers are paid 22 percent more than workers in comparable private-sector jobs or in other parts of the government. That figure was widely publicized in the media, and Sawyer stunned the GPO unions this spring by making a "final offer" of a 22 percent wage cut over three years in talks on a contract to replace the one that expired two weeks ago. Union spokesmen argued that Sawyer's figures are distorted. The joint committee staff said Sawyer's figures are faulty because in some cases they include wages for supervisory personnel in the GPO, but not in the private sector; because they include wages for nonunion labor in the private sector, and because the GPO uses sophisticated equipment and thus requires well-trained workers.

William J. Boarman, president of the Columbia Typographical Union, cites statistics that show the wage for GPO typesetters, $14.35 an hour, is somewhat less than they earn in the private sector. Boarman also said that if GPO pays some craft workers more than the average private-sector worker, it must, to attract and keep the best employes. The importance of the work, Boarman said, makes it necessary for the GPO to have the best employes--and to have two proofreaders for every document, another custom that Sawyer has attacked as costly and inefficient.

In this battle of statistics, with flurries of wage data pouring in from each side, no peace with honor seems at hand. In addition to seeking the pay cut, Sawyer has ordered that all employes be furloughed for six days, usually close to holidays.

The unions responded with a request for a 13.2 percent wage increase over two years, plus cost-of-living increases of up to 3 percent each year, although George E. Lord, chairman of the joint council of unions at GPO, admitted the request was "a little high." In addition, the unions are seeking an injunction to prevent the furloughs from taking place, in a hearing scheduled today in U.S. District Court here.

The House District of Columbia Committee, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold hearings tomorrow on the furloughs and other personnel actions planned by Sawyer. The unions also plan a "truth march" beforehand from the GPO to the Capitol.

But Sawyer, too, has his reinforcements. Seven senators and 87 representatives have cosponsored resolutions in support of his actions, and he is regularly plugged in the Congressional Record. Sawyer hopes this legislative support will be translated into legislation abolishing the Joint Committee on Printing and creating a GPO board of directors in its place. But he concedes that is an unlikely prospect.

Sawyer did not win many friends at GPO when $234,000 worth of refurbishing was ordered for its eighth floor, where the public printer has his offices, while Sawyer was saying that the agency was strapped financially. And although the GPO previously did not have any Schedule C (political) appointees except for Sawyer, he has hired 11, to provide secretarial staff and to run a new marketing campaign for government documents, he said.

Some employes were also surprised when Sawyer, a shooting enthusiast, was deputized a special officer in the GPO police force. He said he does not carry a gun but has access to guns in the building if he needs one for security.