The United Auto Workers union is making peace with the future in this town of political and automotive machines.

The future is high technology, and it's a future with fewer jobs at General Motors Corp.'s huge metal stamping and car assembly plants here in Michigan's state capital.

Leaders of UAW locals 652 and 602 here say their members are accepting the new technology in the hopes that it will mean better car quality, stronger car sales and, therefore, better job security for the autoworkers who remain on the job.

"We don't look at automation as job elimination," said Local 652 President Gary Watson. "We look at it as a way of making cars of much higher quality.

"If you don't get the quality at the right price, you don't get the sales. You don't get the sales, you don't get any jobs," Watson said.

Local 652 represents 14,500 hourly workers, 3,000 of them on indefinite layoff, at GM's two Oldsmobile Division assembly plants here. About 4,200 hourly employes -- 1,400 of them indefinitely laid off -- are represented by Local 602 at the adjacent Fisher Body-Lansing plant. The three plants constitute the largest GM assembly complex in the United States.

GM is spending more than $250 million to convert the plants from production of its big Oldsmobiles to the manufacture of new luxury compacts, code-named "GM20" cars, that will go on sale in the fall as the Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, Buick Somerset Regal and Pontiac Grand Am.

GM hopes to sell these cars to the same market every other auto maker is aiming at -- the young, upwardly mobile professionals who demand quality and performance in automobiles. GM is counting heavily on technology to satisfy those demands.

For example, the number of welding and painting robots at the retooled Oldsmobile and Fisher-Lansing plants total 219, more robots than are currently on line in any GM assembly complex anywhere in the world.

There are 185 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) -- computer-programmed parts and materials carriers that, without a human driver, deliver the right parts to the right place at the right time.

The AGVs spell an end to most human-operated forklifts in the plants.

Other robots at the Lansing plants will replace the human labor involved in racking door panels, applying vehicle identification numbers and tightening drive belts on four-cylinder engines.

But even more imposing demonstrations of the new automotive technology will be used at the Lansing plants.

Robogate, developed by Comau of Italy, is a framing station in use at Fisher Body. It has eight robots that, in an almost ballet-like motion, apply 64 precisely located welds to every car body -- thus establishing the dimensional integrity of the body shell. Robogate replaces welders, eliminating one of the hardest jobs, physically, in an auto plant -- and a source of troublesome human error.

The Master Cube is a gargantuan instrument designed to ensure that auto parts are being fabricated to specification and assembled properly. Its camera-like scanner looks at metal surfaces of the car body as it moves down the assembly line and compares that information with the tens of thousands of measurements and dimensions of a "perfect" GM20 car stored in its computer memory. This is meant to ensure that the car is built as closely as possible to the detailed specifications. If a car is too far off the specifications, it is pulled off the assembly line.

There are other computerized checking instruments along the line that replace most human inspectors who used to do that job. And if this checking does improve quality significantly, there will be far fewer people involved in repairing "finished" cars after they roll off the line.

All of this means that many of the 4,400 laid-off workers here may never return to their jobs -- not even if GM adds a fourth shift to the two Oldsmobile plants during the 1985 model year, as it hopes, GM officials and auto industry analysts say.

The union members "are aware that automation may cost some jobs. But, for the long run, they understand that that's the way we have to go in order to be competitive," said James C. Rucker Jr., Oldsmobile's director of product, strategic and business planning and the division's GM20 program manager.

That attitude seems to reflect the view among most of Lansing's UAW workers, who have always had a reputation for a high degree of pride in their work. In other GM plants, there is some skepticism and mistrust about the company's objectives, reflected, for example, in the testy mood at a UAW bargaining convention meeting earlier this year in Detroit.

But throughout the UAW, there is a grim appreciation of the stakes in their competition against imports. This competition, particularly from the Japanese, started the U.S. auto industry's current drive for quality through technology. Even Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, who wants to keep Japanese imports locked in quotas, admits that much.

Iacocca likes to say, "The facts don't lie." The facts are that imports accounted for 26.2 percent of the U.S. auto market last year. Japanese auto makers alone scooped up 21.1 percent -- in spite of a self-imposed "voluntary restraints agreement" that, since 1981, has limited the flow of Japanese cars to the United States.

The quotas currently allow the annual export of 1.85 million Japanese cars to this country. But the quotas could disappear next spring.

"Whether or not they're lifted, we know that the imports are going to still hold a share of the market. But we're going to beat them with the GM20," said Watson, echoing the predictions of GM managers and workers alike in this town.

"We know we can't sell a car for $10,000 if someone else is selling exactly the same car for $8,000 . . . . The name of the game is quality, and we're coming out with a car that goes right up against the imports," Watson said.

If improved quality is one reason for the drive to automate, an- other is economy. And all four U.S. car companies have been paying overtime, trimming hourly payrolls and slashing administrative staffs. They've also been spending -- nearly $80 billion since 1980, according to some industry estimates -- in a desperate race to get new machines and manufacturing processes to further reduce break-even lines.

Some figures indicate the success of the cut-by-automation approach:

*Domestic auto makers produced nearly 3.8 million cars and trucks in the United States in the first quarter of 1984, with an average quarterly payroll of 565,000 hourly workers, according to Ward's Automotive Research in Detroit. The companies made 3.1 million cars and trucks in this country in the first quarter of 1978 -- the last good year before the last recession -- with an average quarterly payroll of 735,000 production workers, according to figures compiled by the UAW's international offices in Detroit.

That means Detroit employed 23 percent fewer auto workers to produce 2 percent more cars in the first three months of this year compared with 1978. "There's no doubt in our mind that much of that job loss is related to automation," a UAW spokesman said. The higher output per worker is also because of increased use of overtime by the auto companies, which would rather pay for longer hours than add to their fringe-benefit costs by increasing their employment rolls.

*In calendar year 1978, GM produced 9.5 million vehicles worldwide and netted $3.5 billion on worldwide sales of $63.2 billion. In calendar year 1983, GM rolled out nearly 7.8 million vehicles around the globe and earned $3.7 billion on worldwide sales of $74.6 billion.

*In Flint, Mich., about an hour's drive from here, GM is readying yet another super-modern production facility called "Buick City." Industry analysts estimate that automation in that complex will cut the average hours-per-car build time by about 38 percent of current levels -- from 47.8 hours to about 29.8 hours.

"We believe the term 'layoffs' is no longer meaningful," said a June 18 editorial in Automotive News, the industry's closely read weekly trade journal.

" 'Layoff' implies 'recall,' and there are simply thousands of onetime workers in auto plants who are never going to be recalled. Thanks to the growing ranks of robots and the trimming of production capacity, the number of employed auto workers will never again reach the heights once known," the trade journal editorial said.

"Robots and automatic equipment obviously re- place jobs. But there is another part to that. This equipment also increases quality," said UAW Vice President Donald Ephlin, who also is in charge of the union's GM department.

Ephlin, along with UAW President Owen Bieber, will head the union's negotiating team in contract talks with GM, scheduled to begin July 23. The UAW also bargains with Ford Motor Co. this summer. Talks with both companies are aimed at replacing 1982 contracts, which expire Sept. 15.

The UAW gave a total $1.5 billion in concessions to GM and Ford in 1982. And many rank-and-file members are putting pressure on the union's leadership to get that money back in the new round of negotiations.

But Ephlin said the union leadership's primary concern will be job security. Still, that does not mean the union is opposed to automation in the plants. Nor does it mean that the UAW will try to block GM's plans to use its current high-technology muscle to move into profitable fields outside of the auto industry, Ephlin said.

"Diversification will present no problems to us, if it's limited in scope," Ephlin said. "We, of course, would be very concerned if they're taking profits out of auto and are trying to follow the steel industry pattern of buying oil companies and those kinds of things. That would be a problem for us." (GM Chairman Roger B. Smith told The Washington Post that some oil companies asked GM to take over their operations. But he said he turned them down because GM "is not interested in becoming a wild conglomerate.")

The problem with plant automation is not so much that it's taking auto jobs, Ephlin said. "Every piece of machinery ever made was made to reduce labor. With worldwide competition, automation and the down-sizing of cars in the domestic market, you obviously are going to build cars with fewer people," he said.

In previous years, when automation knocked out auto jobs, "you had a strong nonautomotive market to absorb displaced workers," Ephlin said. "But we're getting hit from both sides today. Now, automation is replacing manpower in the car industry; but the nonautomotive markets aren't expanding rapidly enough to absorb the people who are losing work," he said.

Realization that domestic auto industry employment "probably will be permanently reduced" has prompted the UAW to set up training programs that "are preparing people for jobs and fields unrelated to the automotive industry," Ephlin said. Both GM and the union "jointly are spending a heck of a lot of money" on those kinds of programs, Ephlin said.

But here at Lansing, the focus is automotive. GM has never had a local strike in this place, where the popular saying is: "We can work things out." Even with the impending contract talks, the overriding concern here is "getting a good launch" of the GM20.

Part of that is "because management here got smart," said Local 652's Watson. "They're letting us in on planning the assembly of the car. Before, the thing was to just bring you in here on a Monday and say: 'This is what you're going to do. Do it this way. That's it.'

"But, now, they're asking us what we think and they're using our suggestions, too. Our people have been in the plants for months before the start of production, just taking the cars apart and putting them back together, over and over again," Watson said. "If we find that there is a part on the car that is hard to get to or something, we tell them and they change it.

"Our people feel good about that. I've worked for GM for 25 years, and I've never seen our people as excited as they are today about doing their job," Watson said.

Decision-making in the GM20 complex has "been shoved down to the plant floor" to hourly people who use personal computers to make production judgments that once were left to supervisors, said Oldsmobile's Rucker. The downward push of decision-making is part of the sweeping corporate reorganization of GM ordered by Smith this year, intended, among other things, to create a greater concern and responsibility for quality throughout the company.

Oldsmobile bought one school building and is leasing another in the Lansing area to hold training sessions for about 4,800 GM20 workers he said.

"That training, almost 3 million man-hours of training we're doing, has little or nothing to do with the technology in the plant," Rucker said. "It has to do with 'stand-up' skills -- how you work together as a group, how you disagree without fighting, how you make decisions as a group, that sort of thing.

"One of the keys to our success here will be how well we do in getting our people on the assembly line to take more responsibility for quality than they've ever taken in their lives," Rucker said.

Does Watson believe it? "Hell, yes," said Watson. "We're not putting bad parts in anymore because the suppliers are using the same kinds of techniques we're using, and they're not shipping bad parts. And if we do get a bad part, it's not going in. We'll shut the damned line down first. Before -- hell -- management would fire one of our guys if he shut the line down for any reason," Watson said.

These are new work practices that don't really have anything to do with contractual work rules, Watson said. "But we're not giving anything away on this. We're just using common sense."

Watson said he is aware that the new flexibility at Lansing also gives the union new ways to hurt the company. But no one will misuse that power, he said. "Management has finally put confidence in the work force here in Lansing. . . . The union leadership is not going to let someone shut down a line just for the hell of it. That's not using common sense," he said.

He said management should also use some common sense and price the GM20 properly. (The base price for the Grand Am ranges from $9,000 to $11,000, according to a current estimate by Car and Driver, a national magazine for car enthusiasts.) Management "is going to have to decide how much profit is enough," Watson said.

"Look," said Watson, "we have an opportunity here. No one but us will build this particular car, right? This is going to be one damned good car, and that means we're going to get the credit for it.

"If a guy walks into a showroom in California or some place, doesn't matter where, he's going to see this car and he's going to know that it was built by us in Lansing. We've always built good cars: the Olds Cutlass, the 98, the Supreme -- best-sellers. Check the sales.

"It's a matter of pride," said Watson. "That's what this is all about."