The high cost of American automaking forced the Ford Motor Company and the United Auto Workers into the landmark agreement that is now up for ratification. But more important than the specific cost savings is the trend away from confrontation and toward cooperation so conspicuously represented by this agreement.
Labor and management here were not the stereotyped adversaries of the past. They approached their task in a spirit of problem-solving, as the chief UAW negotiator said. While reports have made much of ''concessions'' on each side, the momentum was away from the zero-sum game of winners and losers. It was toward the valuable attitude with which both sides see the problem as the adversary, and not each other.
This is the way American industry ought to go, whether under the compulsion of cost or not. Naturally the local UAW leaders, meeting in Chicago today, and the rank-and-file auto workers will scrutinize the terms reached by their national leadership. Like other workers being asked for concessions, they do not want ''cooperation'' to mean simply bearing the burden for management's mistakes. But, as their leaders note, they won unusual benefits when their industry was booming; it is not unreasonable to forgo some of these to help the industry boom again.
A key point is increased labor-management communication. An informed work force is a better work force, as a Ford negotiator acknowledged. Workers' representatives would have regular input to management decisionmaking. Shared information. Shared participation. Shared responsibility for improved productivity.
A striking sign of the times was the joint visit to Japan by UAW and Ford representatives -- to observe, for example, how Japanese workers can be assured that increased productivity will not throw them out of work. The Ford-UAW agreement would help preserve jobs and guarantee incomes while cutting raises and paid holidays.
The cooperative approach is in line with what is happening in small and large ways in various United States industries. There are mechanisms to bring management and labor together on the shop floor for improvements in quality of product and quality of working life. There are agreements in some airlines and steel firms, for example, to open the company books to the unions while the unions make concessions on wages. Teamsters agree to accept a pay freeze as truckers agree not to set up nonunion subsidiaries.
Cooperation must not become an excuse for crying wolf and unworthily obtaining concessions. Neither should it be dusted off only when dire straits threaten. It has been found useful in Europe and Japan in good times as well as bad. So it can be in the United States.
As a Ford negotiator noted, the recent negotiations got away from the legalisms of the past toward true collective bargaining in good faith. Can the rank-and-file afford not to give the results a try? As their own negotiator points out, there is a ''contract reopener'' clause to fall back on if things don't pan out.