Calvin Shepard, a veteran forklift driver at Chrysler's Lynch Road Gear and Axle Plant, stared bleakly around the living room of his mortgaged house, past the tense face of his wife, Dannie, and into the wide eyes of his daughter, Tameshia, age 9.

"A bad Christmas don't hurt nobody," he said, shifting his glance. "I've had one and I know what it's like."

Not a man of words, the 40-year-old father of two found it difficult to explain why he will vote Tuesday in favor of a strike beginning Monday, even knowing that a prolonged strike could put beleaguered Chrysler out of business.

Shepard is one of about 50,000 Chrysler workers expected to vote in the unusual referendum set up abruptly last week by leaders of the United Auto Workers. It may be the toughest labor decision of the year.

Leadership estimates are that the workers will swallow their bile and vote, narrowly, to reject the strike at least until after Christmas. Then negotiations on a new contract would start fresh on Jan. 1, with the potential of running smack into the same impasse again.

But most Chrysler workers are torn, much as Shepard is. He wants to send a bold, brave message of rage and frustration: about how he can't pay his bills, about how he feels the company is taking advantage of the same workers who sacrificed more than $1 billion in "givebacks" over the last three years in order to save it.

But, being a sane man, he does not want to put his family and his co-workers out into the cold. "If I thought it was all up to me, I mean, if I was the causin' of it . . . . " His hands struggled with the air.

This recession year has been a frustrating one for organized labor. In many cases there have been givebacks instead of gains, but Chrysler is the granddaddy of these giveback cases.

Among other perils, Chrysler workers realize they run the risk of looking like self-destructive fools. Even after their sacrifices in wages and benefits, they are among the best-paid industrial employes in the country at a time of economic decline. And they don't deny that they are far better off than the legions of the unemployed.

Their employer, the nation's third largest auto maker, is only beginning a fragile recovery from the brink of bankruptcy, by all expert analyses, and says it cannot afford to pay the workers much, if any, more than they are getting. Company management and UAW leaders think that a prolonged strike would be Chrysler's death warrant. Still, by 70 to 30 percent, the workers recently rejected a tentative contract recommended by the leadership as the best deal they could get.

The stark choice now on the table is causing friction among the workers and illuminating a reservoir of distrust not only for the company but for the union's leaders, especially UAW President Douglas Fraser.

"I've got 29 years seniority and there's not a whole lot I haven't seen, but I've never seen it like this before," said Kenny Reynolds, who started out with Chrysler on the docks in 1953, unloading trucks, and is president of Local 1248.

Reynolds trusts Fraser and the other leaders, and opposes a strike. But, he said, "Some of the workers are not even afraid of losing a home, they're so fed up. They're saying if I'm gonna have a job where I can't pay my bills, then I don't need this job. And if I can't make it, I'll take management with me."

They are riled, he said, by what they see as management waste in the plants and big management salaries. "Management makes the decisions, but hourly takes the cuts, hourly takes the layoffs, hourly gets the blame."

Because Chrysler has laid off so many workers, what remains is a mature work force, many with family responsibilities. "There really isn't the kids anymore. You got to have 13 to 14 years seniority just to work days," Reynolds said.

"It's like when people riot in a prison," said Larry Leksutin, 37, of the prospect that the workers might put Chrysler under. "They know it won't get them anywhere. But they want to get their message out."

Leksutin, a beefy man, took a break from his job as a grease man repairing equipment at Chrysler's Center Line Parts Depot. "It's eating people up inside," said the divorced father of one.

"Three years ago I made $12.50 an hour. Today I make $8.86. But the cost of living has gone up, fuel has gone up . . . . I know people [at Chrysler] who can't afford their homes anymore, but they can't sell them. Three years ago, guys would take a lot of trips, to Florida, Vegas. Now we can't do anything."

Leksutin, who says he will vote to strike, is among those who expressed mistrust of the UAW leadership. "The union and the company have both turned against the people. The union is trying to use us and not tell us the truth. Fraser, he seems too chummy with the company."

Dick West, 51, a Chrysler draftsman who designs steering wheels, clutch pedals and the like, offered another perspective. The father of four, he has a daughter in college and two sons following him in auto industry jobs. He opposes a strike, even though his own skills are in demand in the industry and he would suffer less than many other Chrysler workers.

He voted to accept the tentative contract and, he said, suffered "a lot of criticism" from his co-workers for doing so. But, he argued, the strike is truly favored only by a certain type of worker. "He's the kamikaze pilot who is willing to take everybody down in flames with him, just to vent his frustration. To him I say, 'Get another job.' "

The leadership wants the workers to know that today's vote is "not a drill." When they voted earlier to reject the tentative contract, some workers falsely believed the government would intervene and stop them from striking, and some may have assumed they were still playing strategy games to impress the company, according to some union officials and workers. "There was a bandwagon effect," said one.

The prospect of losing a set of scheduled benefits tied to the Christmas holidays may alone be enough to tilt the rank and file against striking now, officials said.

Negotiations broke off last week after the company refused the union's demand for an immediate pay increase, saying if the workers wanted to strike that was that.

Workers expectations had been unfortunately raised by Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, officials said, when he publicized the company's recovering fortunes, including its $1 billion cash reserve. But that appeal was aimed not at workers but at lenders and dealers.

The union leadership has taken on the ironic task of selling the company's true position: the profits came not from car sales but from the sale of the company's tank division, interest earnings, and parts sales (because people are fixing up old cars rather than buying new ones.)

The company has lost $145 million selling cars so far this year, the union's letters to the workers point out. As for the $1 billion nest egg Chrysler has accumulated, union officials argue, it amounts to about three paydays and it is needed in case the company runs into more trouble.

"Chrysler can't go to a bank and take out a loan," one official observed wryly.

Some 45,000 active Chrysler workers, plus around 5,000 of the 41,900 laid off, are eligible to vote, according to UAW figures.

The contract they rejected tied any pay increase to Chrysler profits above a certain level and reinstated the cost-of-living increase they had given up earlier. It could have been renegotiated in one year.

Fraser, a member of Chrysler's board under the giveback arrangements, has taken an officially neutral stance on today's vote.

But it is no secret that he is distressed at the prospect of a strike. He is also, according to aide David Mitchell, concerned about the fate of the company and its workers and hurt by the reflection on his credibility represented by the rejection of his earlier recommendation.

"He understands his credibility is at stake here. That hurts him. I know it hurts him . . . . He was here in the glory days. When it was there to be got, he got it. To see it all go down the tubes because members have unrealistic expectations would be a real sad thing."