West Germany has moved a step closer to what could become the most serious labor confrontation in its postwar history. The latest ballot in the key industrial region of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, where much of the country's automobile and electrical industry is located, has removed any doubts that union leaders might have had about staging industrial action over the issue of reducing the workweek to 35 hours.
Last Friday's vote for strike action by 80 percent of the members of the powerful IG Metall engineering workers union in North-Wurttemberg/North-Baden and a similar result in a previous ballot by the militant print union, IG Druck and Papier, have given the unions the boost they needed to avoid caving in over the dispute.
Those votes also defused the employers' claim that the demand of union leaders was not shared by factory workers.
For almost two months, employers in the engineering and print industries and trade union leaders have sat grim-faced through a series of negotiations, each side well aware the other was not prepared to budge from initial bargaining positions.
The trade unions have made their demand for the immediate introduction of a 35-hour workweek without loss of pay one of principle. They are under pressure from the rank and file to do something about unemployment - now 9.5 percent of the workforce - and they sense members' disenchantment with having had to accept for several years wage rises that have scarcely kept up with inflation.
Equally stubbornly, the employers in the key automobile, steel, and engineering industries - in unison with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative-led government - have resisted a general reduction in the workweek, saying it would undermine the competitiveness of German industry and harm the economic recovery.
The verbal battle, accompanied by ''warning'' strikes in both industries, has gone on for so long that it hardly seems to matter anymore which side has the better arguments.
''The issue has become an ideological struggle, one of trade union dissatisfaction with a government that, in the unions' view, is cutting into the welfare state and is not seriously concerned with unemployment,'' an analyst said.
The unions' argument that a 35-hour week offers the most sensible remedy to reduce average national unemployment is rejected by the employers, who claim that production costs - already the fourth-highest in the world after the United States, Canada, and Switzerland - would soar by some 15 percent and lead to further layoffs.
The employers, like the government, have attempted to persuade the unions to accept instead a state-funded early retirement program under which, they claim, 350,000 jobs could be created by 1988 through voluntary early retirement at age 58. The present retirement age is 65 for men and 60 for women.
But once the unions embarked on the categoric 35-hour demand, there could be no going back, despite clear signs that a majority of West German workers are reluctant to opt for industrial action at a time of high unemployment and slow economic growth.
Opinion polls have shown that only 30 to 40 percent of the public believe the present dispute should be pursued by strikes, and the unions themselves did not seem too sure that strike ballots would yield the necessary support of 75 percent of union members.
But the unions' fear - and the hope of industry - that they could have been heading for what an official earlier described as the ''worst defeat for organized labor in recent German history'' has for the time being been dispelled.
Nevertheless, the ballot result in the engineering industry - to be followed by a similar vote in the state of Hesse this week - remained considerably below those during the last big national strike in 1978, when well over 90 percent of IG Metall members voted to strike in the steel industry.
But following the latest poll, at least a token trial of strength with the employers is likely before either side moves toward a compromise.