Speaking this week, to the NAACP, Labor Secretary William Brock said, "I think this country is going to have some form of affirmative action for a considerable period of time into the future." He continued: "we as a country have lived for 200 years with a major part of our population in remarkable disadvantage. And it takes some time to recover from that. Maybe we were not here then. But that does not change the obligation we have as citizens to respond to that situation."

Those are extraordinary words from a Cabinet officer in this administration. They are especially important coming from the official who oversees the most powerful federal agency in the field of job discrimination. This is not the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, although that is the best known, or the Justice Department. It is an obscure unit at Labor -- the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP).

The activities of this office have never been frontally authorized by Congress; its authority comes mainly from a Johnson administration executive order, implicitly upheld through the years in appropriations bills. Off that weak base it has laid down a requirement that every federal contractor of any size have an affirmative action plan, on pain of debarment. The plans of larger companies must include what are called utilization analyses -- numerical standards to judge whether their hiring patterns properly reflect the makeup of the work force. Perhaps a fourth of the workers in the country, and almost every major industry and company, are covered.

Enforcement has varied from warm in the Carter administration to cold, so far, in the Reagan years. But most companies have kept plans in place anyway, though not all with equal vigor. The office is probably the main reason affirmative action has become a fact of life in this country.

The Reagan administration proposed early on to weaken it by reducing its jurisdiction and watering down its rules. The plan was shelved when objections were raised, not just from civil rights groups but from the EEOC and some parts of the business community. In equal employment matters, what many businesses want most from government is steadiness in the rules.

The agency now has an acting director; that is one of several jobs Mr. Brock has yet to fill. The administration position on affirmative action as enunciated by William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, is that numerical standards have no place in hiring plans. That would essentially put the office at Labor out of business. But Mr. Brock suggested to the NAACP that there remains room for numerical standards. "There is a distinction which you can make between absolute numbers and quotas and so-called goals approaches," he said.

We, too, accept that distinction. We welcome Mr. Brock's pledge to "enforce the laws as the laws were written and intended." No one expects this administration to turn activist in civil rights. But there are areas of maneuver, and Mr. Brock can perhaps do with civil rights groups what he is also doing with organized labor on behalf of the administration and his party: civilize the discourse.