Fewer American production workers are expected to turn out more goods as the national economy improves after the worst recession in 40 years. For the United Automobile Workers, currently in convention in Dallas, and other industrial unions, such a prospect is grim. It means that for the first time since World War II, recovery from a recession is not likely to push employment to new highs. Many of the jobs lost through layoffs over the past several years will not be refilled.
Alfred S. Warren Jr., vice-president for industrial relations at General Motors Corporation, has been blunt about that, saying recently, ''We at GM are going to employ fewer people than we had before.''
Because of the poor rehiring prospects, organized labor is making job security and retraining major objectives.
A number of unions with bargaining coming up this year are formulating demands for a share of the profits springing from savings made through automation. There is also talk of ''taxes'' on robots that displace production workers. The money would be used primarily to retrain and relocate workers who lose jobs.
With UAW in the forefront, unions are also insisting that workers - through their unions - be given more voice in decisions affecting plant jobs. UAW has a seat on the Chrysler corporate board now. Its contracts in auto and other industries often require job retraining for those displaced.
The problem is: retraining for what jobs?
Much of the job growth will be in services and in high technology. The first is a field that jobless industrial workers will not enter very willingly because it will mean less pay. The second poses particular problems for the older unemployed and the undereducated, for whom retraining may not be easy.
Corporation executives who attended a three-day Business Council conference in Hot Springs, Va., last weekend generally agreed that even a strong recovery - which few expect to come quickly - would not result in the rehiring of substantial numbers of the millions who have been laid off.
The talk was more about plans for increased mechanization and the use of robots than about possible recalls of furloughed workers.
Edward G. Jefferson, chairman of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., said that ''just a few'' of the company's 13,000 workers who have been laid off are likely to be rehired even in a ''booming'' economy. The firm has doubled its capacity for producing synthetic fibers over the past decade with an increase of less than 5 percent in its work force.
The auto industry prospects being discussed bleakly at UAW's convention include heavy investments in automation before the end of the century, including some 25,000 new robots and other computerized equipment.
That, plus prospects for a smaller auto market, will mean continuing employment problems not only for UAW and communities with economies closely linked to the auto industry, but also in a wide range of allied industries. The Midwest, particularly, could be seriously affected, but large pockets of unemployment will cause problems throughout the country.
Most Reagan administration economists agree on the poor prospects for those on layoff. They predict only slow job growth in a period of ''moderate and sound economic growth,'' and suggest that it will take five to six years to bring the unemployment rate down to 6 percent or 7 percent. They talk of drops from the present 10.2 percent to 9.5 percent by the end of 1984, 8.5 percent in 1985, and 7.8 percent in 1986.