Owen Bieber, a big, shy country boy whose formal education never went beyond high school, is a hard worker who has struggled with a perforated ulcer and a bad back, a family man who gets his kicks playing with his four grandchildren.

To paraphrase something once said about Ronald Reagan: Owen Bieber for Nice Guy, yes. But Owen Bieber for leader of the bedeviled United Auto Workers union?

Bieber, 52, was anointed a week ago Friday by leaders of the nation's third largest labor union as successor to their charismatic leader, Douglas Fraser. It is, as one AFL-CIO official put it, "the hardest act to follow in organized labor."

The post is not only one of organized labor's most powerful but also one of its thorniest. Auto workers, accustomed to the fattest contracts in American industry, are reeling from the automobile sales slump, foreign competition, a series of "give-back" contracts and loss of about 400,000 jobs since the late 1970s.

"It's not that Owen bowled anybody over with his charisma," a member of the UAW executive board told The Detroit News after the board nominated Bieber. "He isn't charismatic. But he also didn't offend anybody. I think we'd all agree that he's a good Christian gentleman who has integrity and can be trusted.

"There aren't any Walter Reuthers out there these days," the official said, referring to the union's legendary founding father. "So, what's wrong with a guy you can trust?"

A typical response from Bieber's colleagues when asked about him is, "Well, he's just a real nice guy." He is also said to be warm, compassionate, steady, deliberate, a nuts-and-bolts man.

Bieber [pronounced BEE-burr] talked, somewhat guardedly, about himself and his new prominence recently in his office at UAW headquarters, overlooking the Detroit River.

Among other things, he poked good-natured fun at himself for having just been bumped from a scheduled appearance on ABC's "Good Morning, America" by some football-playing union brothers who had chosen the moment to settle their own labor problems. His appearance was rescheduled for the next day.

Bieber is a tall man with iron-gray, wavy hair and thick, black eyebrows. Most noticeable are his hands -- huge, with fingers like pistons.

As a young man in 1948, he used them to bend border wire for the seats of big American cars.

"You had to bend 8- and 9-gauge spring wire, sometimes five wires at a time," he said between sips of Sanka. He grasped an imaginary tool and twisted. "Those Hudsons, they had a seat four miles long."

That was his first plant job -- at the McInerney Spring and Wire Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was 19, just out of Catholic Central High School. "It was a hard job. After the first hour in there, I felt like just leaving. If my father hadn't worked there, too, I probably would've," he said.

Instead he followed in his dad's footsteps as an avid unionist. A year later, he was elected shop steward and began a methodical climb through the union ranks.

He became a local executive board member, bargaining committee member, vice president and then, in 1956, president of Local 687 in Grand Rapids. Then it was regional staff representative, part-time regional organizer, servicing representative, assistant regional director and in 1974, director of Region 1D.

"I think I've hit almost every rung on the ladder," he said, smiling.

In 1980, he was elected a UAW vice president and director of its General Motors Department, the union's largest division. He reached the heights just in time to see the economic ground fall away and found himself negotiating the union's first give-back contract with the giant auto maker. That agreement was only narrowly approved by the rank and file.

Now he is on the top rung and suddenly besieged by what he said looks like "two-thirds of the world's press." Unlike Fraser when he took over the presidency in 1977, Bieber is little known outside the UAW's Michigan ranks. Although he has a reputation for being tight-lipped around reporters, he admitted enjoying the attention surrounding his nomination.

Bieber will say little about his goals as president, emphasizing that Fraser is still boss until the UAW convention in Dallas next May, when delegates are expected to ratify Bieber. But he said he plans no significant departure from the union's established approach as a flexible and progressive institution. In the tradition of UAW leaders, he classifies himself as a liberal Democrat.

Regarding the future of labor-management relations, he said he is an ardent advocate of "quality of work-life" programs such as those already in place at GM. They give workers a say in some work-place decisions, and he said he believes they can exist amid the traditional adversarial relationships at the bargaining table.

"There are a lot of areas where we can have cooperative programs. Maybe half or 75 percent will fail, but so what. We've got to try," he said.

Bieber said he is prepared to "do battle" to preserve the auto industry as the backbone of the U.S. economy and vowed to continue his predecessor's push for a domestic content bill requiring that imported cars contain a certain proportion of U.S. parts and labor.

At the same time, he said, "there's no use kidding ourselves." Because of smaller cars and new technology, "even if we went back to 1978 levels of production, we won't have as many people" on the job, he said.

Accordingly, he noted, the union has "stepped up its tempo" in organizing other occupations. Included, for example, are office clerical workers at Cornell University, Blue Cross-Blue Shield workers in Detroit and some high-technology industry employes in the Northeast.

Asked why he wanted to be UAW president, Bieber seemed to bog down in humility:

"Well, I suppose I'm like any other individual. I have a certain amount of drive. I've always been sort of uncomfortable sitting in one place, to be honest with you . . . I realize that the presidency of this union is a very important position and also a very tough one to fill, especially now.

"Following in the footsteps of Doug Fraser under normal conditions would be tough. I know there'll be comparisons made of how I operate in that office. My accomplishments will be measured against some pretty well-recognized, great leaders, in my opinion -- Fraser, Leonard Woodcock, Reuther.

"And, in addition to that, I'm coming into office . . . at a time when we're going to have great difficulties . . . .

"And I guess I also look at it from this standpoint. This union doesn't owe me anything. I owe it a great deal. This union has made a large investment in myself. The opportunities that I've had, the positions that I've occupied have put me in a position where I possess the necessary tools to function in that office.

"I think it's just a whole combination of things. I think I would be less than honest if I didn't say that my colleagues played a role in helping me come to the decision to be a candidate . . . They thought I could make a contribution."

Some union sources observe that, like AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, Bieber will be given some coaching on how to give shorter answers to questions.

Bieber, not unaware of his tendency to ramble, said at one point, "I was awed by Walter Reuther. But, you know, people kid me about making long speeches. Well, when Walter made an opening speech at a convention, you were in for a pretty long period of time."