Looming over the flat fields of corn and soybeans of rural central Ohio, the mammoth 1-million-square-foot Honda automobile plant is a world apart, a self-contained community that appears radically different from most American work places.

Nearly 40 acres under one roof, the bustling Honda motorcyle-automobile manufacturing complex is a small piece of Japan, a transplant of Japanese-style management thriving on foreign soil.

Now, however, Honda is being challenged by an American labor union that is questioning some of its basic principles.

At Honda, everyone from the company president to the fork-lift driver wears identical white uniforms, eats in the same cafeteria, meets every day to discuss work and exercises in the company's $2 million sports complex -- underscoring the idea that workers are equal partners of "Team Honda."

This factory has no "workers" and "supervisors." The cars are built by "associates" who perform a variety of jobs, and whose work is watched by a handful of "coordinators."

Nobody is assigned to sweep the floors -- because everyone is supposed to share the burden. To reinforce these ideals -- "The Honda Way" -- rhyming slogans written by the associates are posted throughout the plant, such as "Honda Teamwork Cannot Be Surpassed, Because Quality and Safety are Never Last."

But the world according to Honda is being questioned by the United Auto Workers, which contends that Honda's commitment to enlightened management is superficial and that its workers still want a union voice in decision-making on key issues such as wages, benefits, the speed of the assembly line and the right for seniority preference in promotions and transfers.

The UAW is attempting to organize more than 2,500 employes in the first major union-representation election held at a Japanese-owned U.S. auto plant. More than 30 percent of the employes have petitioned for UAW representation. A vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board is expected next month.

But opposition to the union is strong among Honda associates, largely because Honda is not only building 150,000 highly regarded, hot-selling Accords here every year, it is also building intense loyalty. It brought stable jobs at $12-an-hour salaries to a depressed area by opening the first Japanese motorcyle plant in America in 1979, followed by the first Japanese auto plant in 1982, as part of a $600 million investment in U.S. production.

The election campaign is provoking sharp debate here about the often-conflicting methods of Japanese management and American unions. The questions, to many, are whether workers and their employers are best served by a participatory, "family" style of management and whether a labor union can better represent the workers' interests -- without jeopardizing the company's health in a fiercely competitive global industry.

"I have worked in machine shops since I was 16, and I have never been happier any place than I've been in my four years at Honda," said Steven Brenzo, a 36-year-old technician whose enthusiasm for the Honda Way has not been diminished by a recent accident that tore a finger off his right hand.

"There really is more of a team-work attitude here, rather than every man for himself. Here, labor and management work as one. You don't have management sitting up in an office all day long . . . . I work with Japanese engineers, and they are willing to take your ideas and listen. I have more decision-making here than I have ever had," said Brenzo, who opposes the union.

But Robert Higgins, a 28-year-old inspector and 6-year Honda veteran, said he wants a union to help defend his seniority rights. Although Higgins has been promoted once, he said he believes he has been passed over for further advancement because Honda uses "the 'buddy system.' They give the good jobs to their buddies, the guys they play golf with" instead of posting jobs and inviting applicants.

"They reward you if you have blind obedience," Higgins said. "They also say they want to have a family atmosphere, but the problem is that they treat us like the children of the family."

Prounion workers contend that Honda's commitment to worker participation is illusory because important matters are decided by managers alone and workers who dare to speak up against company policy are ostracized. They contend they need the UAW to establish seniority rights because Honda often uses favoritism to promote more docile employes. They also want the union to negotiate increased staffing to relieve workers from the relentless scramble of the 300-cars-per-shift speed of the assembly line. That speed is typical for auto plants, but Honda has fewer workers than many comparable plants, according to the UAW.

Antiunion sentiment revolves around the belief that Honda is a benevolent and progressive employer, providing secure jobs and a wage that puts Honda workers among the industrial elite. They fear that the UAW's "Detroit" approach would hurt Honda by imposing burdensome work rules and possible strikes that would threaten labor-management cooperation and saddle Honda with excessive costs that ultimately threaten job security.

In the company cafeteria, Honda has posted a list of management policies, and the first item reads: "Proceed always with ambition and youthfulness." Youth is evident among Honda workers, whose average age is between 25 and 30. And while the company stresses a youthful, optimistic attitude, the union tries to convince workers they will need more protection in their later years -- in the form of a union contract.

Associates wear their divided loyalties on their baseball caps -- most sporting Honda green caps with their Honda white uniforms, but some wearing UAW blue. Honda banned the union hats in 1981 when interest in the UAW first emerged, but the union won a ruling from the NLRB overturning the ban. Now, an antiunion group called Associates Alliance wears blue hats -- but with a "UAW-Buster" red slash through the union logo.

Flexibility is a key to the success of Japanese production methods, with a generally smaller number of workers each performing a wider variety of jobs, according to industry experts. By contrast, they said, unions favor more hiring and more job classifications to protect workers from job combinations that result in heavier workloads.

"We are building the best cars in America, and one of the best cars in the world -- at a competitive price -- right here in Union County, Ohio," said a white-suited Honda Vice President Alan Kinzer, who said union staffing demands could threaten that success. "We pride ourselves on being a stable company. We don't like layoffs. We don't like overstaffing."

Promotions are based primarily on the skill and commitment of employes, he said, and only if two employes are considered equally qualified would seniority -- or "associate service" in Honda language -- be considered the deciding factor.

Fearing union interference with their methods, Japanese firms tend to locate in areas where unions are weak, such as southern states, or in Honda's case, rural Ohio, 35 miles northwest of Columbus, said Jerome M. Rosow, president of the nonprofit Work In America Institute, who has studied Japanese methods.

Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Co. have chosen Tennessee and Kentucky for their American production sites, while Mazda is building its U.S. facility in Michigan and, in contrast to those plants, has already agreed to UAW representation of its employes.

The outcome of the Honda vote, expected next month, is being closely watched in labor-management circles because the UAW's inability to unionize Honda would undercut the union's position in trying to organize the other Japanese plants, and it could weaken the union's future bargaining position with American auto firms, which can argue for labor concessions to match their nonunion competitors.

Honda workers generally earn $2 to $3 less per hour than UAW auto workers, and about $7 to $8 less when all benefits are calculated, according to industry estimates.

"We are really treated good . . . . We don't make the extra money of Detroit, but we don't have to worry about layoffs," said Randy Jackson, a "team leader," as he gulped down a snack with associates during the hurried 10-minute afternoon break. UAW points out that union contracts provide 23-minute breaks, a difference that translates to 125 hours yearly.

"It's hectic" on the Honda assembly line, Jackson said. "Here, they move you around, from job to job. In Detroit, instead, they hire too many people." The Detroit job may be easier on the worker, he said, but it increases the company's labor costs and therefore threatens jobs.

Brent Cain, 34, a veteran machinist, resents Honda's attempts to promote flexibility by making him an "electrical-mechanical-hydraulic technician" instead of just a machinist. The Honda way, he said, makes workers more versatile but detracts from his efforts to sharpen his machinist's skills.

The Japanese style appeals to many workers, but is not without conflict, according to Robert E. Cole, a University of Michigan professor of sociology and business administration, who is the author of "Japanese Blue Collar," based on his experience as an auto worker in Japan.

"The notion of breaking down status and privilege with ideas like the company uniform and a first-come, first-served parking lot -- with no spaces reserved for management -- that appeals to a lot of people," Cole said.

"Any U.S. company can do the same thing the Japanese do -- if they get rid of the rank-and-file divisions and get down to taking a little more personal interest in the people they have working for them," said Steven Barker, 35, a machinist who helped organize the antiunion Associates Alliance. "I think people are treated at Honda the way they should be treated everywhere else, if management was doing their job right."

Cole, who is writing a book on management, said that in many American work places, "workers complain that they are treated like children, like they have no brains . . . . But companies like Honda say you are a full contributing member, and I think that also plays well with workers."

But while the Japanese "are willing to have [worker] participation in some areas, they don't want it in others," Cole said. "It is a carefully controlled participation. They want worker input on ways to improve, but they really don't want workers questioning management authority to make decisions. They want people to be heard, but want them to accept whatever management does ultimately."

The vote had been scheduled Dec. 19, but three days before, the UAW filed unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB against Honda, accusing Honda of secretly establishing the antiunion labor group and other illegal practices.

Honda vigorously denied the charges, accusing the union of attempting to delay an election it knows it will lose.

The NLRB postponed the vote until the charge can be investigated.