THE VOTE by members of United Auto Workers Local 974 to accept a settlement offer by Caterpillar after a 206-day strike is a good example of what the framers of this country's labor laws called industrial democracy. It's especially worthy of notice because this 2-1 vote came against the recommendations of the union's bargaining team, which resisted what it considered "givebacks." All this is important beyond Peoria, where the company is headquartered and has most of its work force.

The contract that Local 974 has agreed to freezes wages and retains the quarterly cost-of-living adjustment: no changes here. But it does not include the traditional 3 percent annual raise, and it cuts the amount of paid leave time. In return, the company has agreed for the first time to a profit-sharing plan. So this is not a one-sided concession by the employees; Business Week said the company "knuckled under." Workers give up a pay increase and leisure. But they get a chance at profits instead --and Caterpillar, except in 1982, has been a very profitable company.

Acceptance of this settlement must have been painful for both sides, but in the long run it may turn out to be a constructive adjustment to a changed economy. In the prosperous 1970s, workers and unions concentrated on keeping themselves ahead of inflation, regardless of the growth in the national economy or the profits of their employers. Companies like Caterpillar were content to go along with this on the theory that flush times would last forever and increases in costs could be passed along in what amounted to captive markets. But we have had four years of recession now, and Caterpillar faces stiff competition here and in the foreign markets, which are increasingly important to it, from the Japanese firm, Komatsu. The new contract gives Caterpillar's workers the same incentives as management. Workers' attentions are directed at increasing the company's profits rather than simply increasing their own take-home pay and leisure time.

There is enough blame to go around for the nation's economic ills, but the fact is that the problems faced by firms like Caterpillar have turned out to be worse than generally predicted. The important thing now is not to place blame, but to draw useful guidance for the future. One thing that has been learned is this: rather than fighting for larger shares of a shrinking pie, it is better to give incentives to everyone to make the pie bigger.