American Labor law is based on a rather nasty view of the world. It assumes the worst about both management and labor, imagines the work place as a series of basically adversarial relationships between employers and employees, employers and unions, even between unions and their members. It then seeks to civilize these relationships, not to guarantee particular outcomes but to keep them fair.

The law has done reasonably well at this over the years, but now comes a new problem. As part of the efforts to bail out some troubled basic industries and for other reasons, some companies and unions are now entering into -- brace yourself -- cooperative relationships. It is a sneak attack on the law's assumptions. The law is not merely unprepared for these experiments; it can militate against them. A case in point is the agreement that was reached between General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers concerning GM's planned Saturn small-car plant in Springfield, Tenn.

sk,2 The plan has just been cleared by Rosemary Collyer, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. Two charges of unfair labor practices had been brought by the National Right to Work Committee. The agreement is a trade-off. GM wants the right to change traditional job classifications and work rules in hopes of creating a more efficient production center for its smaller models, the better to compete with Japanese and other imports. The union has agreed, in return for a presence in the plant, a role in designing the new jobs and rules and a share of the jobs: GM will give preference in hiring to UAW members, who will lose jobs at the existing small-car plants that Saturn is expected to replace.

sk The right-to-work committee complains that this constitutes premature recognition of the union. The law, as part of its search for fairness, seeks to protect workers against representation except by unions of their choice, and Tennessee in addition is a right-to-work state, meaning workers cannot be required to join unions as a condition of employment. But a union is entitled to look out for its threatened members, as the UAW did in this case, and the agreement does not quite recognize the UAW as bargaining agent at Saturn; theoretically, a majority of employees there could still renounce it.

Those are the hooks on which the general counsel's ruling was hung. It was the right adaptation of the law. As a practical matter, this is a situation in which an old-style unionized plant is no longer competitive. The union says it will agree to a new-style plant if it can keep a role, and the company says fine. The right-to-work committee would rather the national response to competitive pressures be nonunion. That continues to be what the fight is about.