Until seven weeks ago, some of the top sirloins for sale in Washington, D.C., supermarkets likely were boned by Bill Pritchard, a strapping blond meatcutter here.

But since June 7, he and 2,400 other members of meatcutters Local 222 have been on strike here against Iowa Beef Processors Inc., the world's largest beef slaughterhouse and packer.

They are not fighting for higher pay. They are seeking a two-year wage freeze that looks good only in contrast to the four-year freeze Iowa Beef is insisting on.

The company has enraged the union by hiring replacements--many of them people like David Inks of nearby Sioux Falls, Iowa, who was laid off from his grain elevator job six months ago--to do union members' work.

Inks, lined up last week for the union members' old jobs, said he is so desperate for work that he is willing to risk the threat of violence like that which broke out last Tuesday and Wednesday, when the plant reopened.

Both Pritchard and Inks said the same thing: "I just want to go back to work."

They are players in an epic labor-management battle, set in the glare of the hothouse summer on the plains. The script is being written by hard times and the new realities of technology in the slaughterhouse.

At the center of the drama is Iowa Beef, a corporate bull that came charging into the meat packing industry in 1961 with revolutionary impact. Since then its new methods have left all its competition eating dust.

Its colorful history is laced with convictions for bribery, allegations of controversial business tactics as well as labor violence. It is now being investigated for alleged antitrust violations.

The company, like its employes, is faced with harsh facts that threaten its existence, officials said.

Squeezed for profits in a cutthroat industry, they must lower labor costs to stay competitive or eventually close some plants as many of their former competitors have been forced to do, they said.

On sales of $5 billion to $6 billion a year, Iowa Beef has only slightly more than a 1 percent profit margin, according to company official Charles Harness.

"The average for American business is 4 to 5 percent," Harness said.

Iowa Beef slaughters 5.7 million head of cattle a year, more than 16 percent of all beef cattle killed in the United States annually.

Pritchard, with a wife and two children, is struggling to get by on his $65-a-week strike pay.

"You can't just go out and find other work," he said. "A lot of us have been looking since the strike started."

Iowa Beef is offering Inks $6.95 an hour, $1 less than he made at his grain elevator job and $2 less than Pritchard and the other strikers were making in the same jobs.

Said Inks' wife, Teresa, "Anything is better than $100 and something a week for unemployment."

Once the fear of further violence has abated, Iowa Beef officials expect to be able to bring the plant back up to full capacity within a few weeks "with or without the union," Harness said. Some 50 members of the union are among those back at work, he said.

Several hundred employes are at work in the plant now, according to Harness. The plant is operating only one 8-hour shift, instead of round the clock.

Last week, two dozen strikers were arrested, 29 people including a television newsman were injured, and 70 vehicles were damaged when strikers pelted the replacement workers with bricks and stones as they tried to cross the picket lines.

After the first hours of violence, a contingent of nearly 100 Nebraska state troopers in riot gear arrived, turning the plant into an armed camp and cracking down on the strikers.

The troopers will remain at the plant to protect workers for as long as needed, officials indicated.

The company processed its meat at other plants during the six-week shutdown, which, according to the Sioux City Journal, cost the surrounding community about $1 million a week.

Such losses were cited by company officials when they decided to reopen the plant last Tuesday, despite the volatile emotional climate.

"Our employes, the Siouxland community, the area cattle feeders and our customers should not have to suffer indefinitely the economic hardships the current strike is causing," said Arden Walker, chief negotiator for the company. He added that negotiations had reached an impasse.

Many here believe public sentiment was running with the union until the violence. But it was always a close public relations race. "The seemingly high wages earned by Iowa Beef employes are a source of some irritation around the community," wrote a Journal columnist.

The workers average $22,000 a year, according to the company.

No one denies that the work is dirty and dangerous. The plant, like the industry at large, has a high turnover rate in its work force, sometimes as high as 100 percent in a year, Harness said.

The workers insist that they deserve every penny they earn, and speak of "blood-soaked hands" turning numb in frigid plant temperatures, bruises, severed arteries, and a company insistence on "speeding up the chain" (the speed of the production line). "Those scabs, there may be a few lined up for jobs, but wait till they find out what they got to do," said a striker called "Red" on the picket line.

"The carcasses come in and they're still kicking," said a friend, feinting and twisting in a mini-ballet as he dodged imaginary cattle hooves. "And you gotta reach in like this and slit the jugular without getting clobbered . . . ."

Iowa Beef, which has merged with Occidental Petroleum, has loosened the grip of the meatcutters union, now the United Food and Commercial Workers union, in other plants. Of Iowa Beef's 11 plants in seven states, three are UFCW plants, two others have Teamster representation and six are nonunion.

Innovations introduced by Iowa Beef have converted the jobs from those of skilled butchers, handling whole carcasses, to repetitious, low-skilled work done in assembly-line fashion.

The company's techniques helped render major stockyards and packers in Kansas City, Chicago and elsewhere obsolete by shipping beef already cut up and boxed, instead of "swinging in" whole carcasses.

This has saved consumers money in shipping costs, middlemen's fees and markups, according to meat industry spokesmen.

The union argues that the savings have come from underpaying workers and busting unions.

In any case, Iowa Beef can train a new worker for the plant in less than a week, according to Harness. All they have to learn is one simple cut which they repeat.

"I've got 38 seconds to take 12 bones out," said one union member, describing her processing job. "I see 82 pieces of meat go by per hour."

Most of the women workers wield knives in the processing end of the operation. The toughest jobs, in the slaughterhouse, are done almost totally by men.

Trouble is no stranger to Iowa Beef.

The Dakota City plant has never had a union contract without a strike. The first, in 1969 and 1970, was the most violent. A striker pleaded guilty to the murder of a union member's sister, whom he shot in the stomach in the belief that she was a company informant.

Another striker was charged with arson. The houses of several company employes were dynamited. The house of the company's general counsel was wrecked by an apparently radio-controlled incendiary bomb whose explosion was so hot that it melted a power mower in the garage.

In 1974, the company's hard-charging cofounder, Currier J. Holman (now deceased), was found guilty of conspiring to bribe labor union and supermarket officials in a scheme to buy labor peace and get its boxed beef into the tightly controlled New York beef market, the largest in the world.