THE strikes in major industrial centers of Western Europe this year - West Germany and France in particular - underscore the deep-seated strains that often accompany long-range economic and social adjustments. Europe is now slowly shifting from a primarily manufacturing industrial base to a more varied economic structure that encompasses high-technology firms and smaller electronics- and computer-oriented enterprises.
What would be unfortunate in the recent round of strikes would be for the labor unrest to work against the very export-oriented industries that are leading the European recovery - yet are at the same time the very industries (such as autos and steel) that are most caught up in the current adjustment from a manufacturing to a high-technology-based economy.
In short, Europe needs a fair degree of labor peace - and time - to ensure a successful transition to a more varied economic structure. That it must make the transition seems inescapable. Western Europe is directly challenged by such newly industrialized Asian nations as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan - all of whom are now turning out first-rate manufactured goods at favorable global market prices.
World attention has largely focused on strikes in France in recent months, as the French government has sought to modernize and downsize such older industries as steel and shipbuilding, while directly cutting back on the number of public-sector employees. Now, labor unrest is intensifying in West Germany, which over the years has prided itself on its lack of industrial strife. Current strikes and lockouts in West Germany come at a moment when that nation's economy is finally making progress in emerging from the recession.
Some economists now believe that barring great care from both sides - management and labor - any protracted strike, or settlement solely along the lines of the original demands sought by the unions - could actually work against gains in productivity, could reduce exports, and thus, add to unemployment.
The metalworkers union (IG Metall), and its allied unions are seeking a 35 -hour workweek with full pay. They argue that a five-hour cut in the workweek would actually enable firms to put more people to work.
The request for the shorter workweek is not new. IG Metall sought such an objective in the 1970s. What makes the issue important now is that the union and its allies have in part targeted West German auto firms. Any settlement that boosted the price of West German cars or metal or engineering-linked products could work against export sales.
The West German recovery is still considered somewhat fragile. Most analysts expect overall economic growth this year to be around 3 percent, followed by growth of 2.5 percent in 1985. But unemployment remains substantial, at around 9 percent. Interest rates are at uncomfortably high levels. Industry and jobs, meantime, are shifting southward from the Hamburg, Ruhr regions in the north and west.
Will the current strikes and lockouts be settled in the next week or so? Economists agree that would be in the nation's best interest. And it would make sense, since the vacation season will soon tempt German workers and their families away from strike lines. A short strike, followed by a modest settlement - such as a gradual reduction in the workweek, say to 38 or 39 hours, with additional compensation for overtime - would not be expected to produce any major economic difficulty.
What West Germany and Europe in general do not need at this time of cautious global recovery and rising competition from low-wage Asian nations is protracted labor unrest or an expensive strike settlement.