DEARBORN, MICH., SEPT. 15 -- Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers union moved closer to a new labor agreement tonight, with both sides accepting the broad outlines of a precedent-setting no-layoff employment program.

Sources close to the negotiations expected a settlement soon, perhaps Wednesday, pending final work on a wages and benefits package and the economics of setting up what bargainers are calling the Guaranteed Employment Numbers Program.

Spokesmen for the union and the company issued a joint statement late tonight saying that the bargaining is now taking place at the "highest levels" of both organizations. For example, they said Ford President Harold A. Poling has been involved in the talks today and tonight.

The union first suggested such a no-layoff program two weeks ago. But the UAW declined in its initial proposal to offer projections on how much the program would cost. Also, the union demanded a no-layoff plan that would guarantee the jobs of its current 108,OOO Ford members, regardless of economic downturns, slow sales or job positions lost through attrition.

The new agreement would allow the losses of some jobs through attrition and would permit temporary layoffs for specified periods during recessions. But the laid-off workers would have stronger recall rights under the new proposal.

Also, under the tentative plan, the company would fix employment numbers on a plant-by-plant basis. The plant-by-plant provision suggests the union has acknowledged that some job reductions may have to be made at older, less-efficient Ford plants.

In return for its guarantees, Ford has received the UAW's agreement to combine certain job classifications in the company's bid to further improve production efficiency.

Bargainers were still working on the details late tonight. But optimism prevailed.

Sources said the company might also agree to reduce outsourcing -- that is, using outside foreign and domestic suppliers to supply automotive parts.

The union's decision Monday to extend its current contract beyond the scheduled expiration at 11:59 p.m. Monday signaled that an agreement was close at hand, one source said.

"They apparently felt that an agreement was close and saw no need for going through the agony of setting up strike operations," the source said. The UAW is negotiating with both Ford and General Motors Corp., but the GM talks are being held in abeyance until matters are settled at Ford.

The union does not negotiate with Chrysler Corp. until next year.

But, ironically, the jobs of 70,000 Chrysler workers in the United States have been jeopardized by a Canadian Auto Workers strike against the company's Canadian subsidiary.

The CAW struck all of Chrysler Canada Inc.'s operations Monday night in a dispute over protecting pension benefits from erosion by inflation. Settlement prospects were unclear today.

If the Canadian walkout runs three weeks, it could shut down most of Chrysler's U.S. operations. Chrysler's Canadian operations produce trim -- such as dashboard components, visors, floor pans and carpeting -- supplied to all nine Chrysler car and truck assembly plants in the United States.

The walkout also affects production of all of Chrysler's full-size vans and about half of the company's hot-selling minivans, company officials said.

The Canadian strike already has led to the closure of Chrysler's new front-wheel-drive, luxury car plant in Belvidere, Ill., which is producing the 1988 model New Yorker Landau and Dodge Dynasty sedans.

Company spokesman Baron Bates said today that Belvidere already was running short of parts prior to the walkout, and that the strike simply worsened matters. Other Chrysler U.S. assembly facilities probably will not be hurt for several weeks because the company stockpiled parts in anticipation of a strike, Bates said.

However, Chrysler dealers may have some difficulty filling orders for minivans, which were running at a four-day supply in a market where a 60-day supply is considered normal.

And if the strike continues, full-size vans may be in extremely short supply. But most other Chrysler models -- for example, Omni, Horizon, Reliant and Aries -- should be in ample supply, Bates said.