A STRIKE by production workers at the Boeing Company is becoming the latest major test of labor-union strength in America.
How the 18-day-old strike plays out will not only affect the competitiveness of the world's leading aerospace company, analysts say, but it also will influence collective bargaining at other industrial firms.
''This has significance for all of manufacturing'' in the United States, says Harley Shaiken, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
At picket lines in Washington State and Wichita, Kan., 32,500 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers - roughly one-third of Boeing's work force - are on strike.
Job security is a central issue.
''This is a defining issue for labor, and really it's a broader issue for the US economy,'' Professor Shaiken says. At stake is ''how the US competes in global markets ... whether it's based on ... skills at home or cheaper labor abroad.''
Few workers criticize Boeing for making ''offset'' deals in which parts are bought from a foreign nation as an incentive for that nation's airlines to buy Boeing airplanes. But Machinists spokeswoman Connie Kelliher says such deals account for only a fraction of Boeing's outsourcing. Already more than half the value of Boeing planes comes from outside the company, she says, and that proportion appears to be headed upward.
The union this week requested the Clinton administration to stop China from forcing US firms to send jobs and technologies to China in exchange for buying US-made aircraft.
Some experts say American corporations should establish ''high-performance work organizations,'' where workers become more innovative, skilled, and productive in return for a reasonable degree of job security.
Others respond that even with higher-value contributions from workers, job security is an unrealistic expectation amid fierce global competition. That competition has caused a wave of corporate downsizing - one reason unions have waned in recent years.
While Boeing has had hard times, it is primarily an American success story. The firm has a 60 percent market share in commercial jetliners, is the nation's largest exporter, and, after a five-year period of slow orders, is poised for a production upturn.
So strikers ask why job security is off the table and health-benefit cuts are on in Boeing's final offer. The average worker would pay $1,500 a year more in new health-care costs than he or she would gain in higher wages and bonuses, the union says.
Striker Bill White, who does final-assembly work on the 747 airplane, says the increase would cost him about $4,000, since one of his daughters regularly receives expensive medical treatment.
Health-care cuts were proposed very late in negotiations, leading to one of several ''unfair labor-practice'' charges by the union against Boeing. Rulings are expected soon from the National Labor Relations Board.
Boeing says to remain No. 1, it must cut production costs enough so airlines will no longer be reluctant to buy planes. And although the company is considered the low-cost producer of jetliners, rivals McDonnell Douglas and Europe's Airbus Industrie are keeping the pressure on.
The industry is ''probably even more competitive now than it was in 1989,'' when the Machinists last struck the company, says Bill Whitlow, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Seattle.
Moreover, with two-thirds of future orders expected to come from outside the US, Boeing sees ''offset'' deals as crucial. ''If Boeing doesn't do it then Airbus will, and so will McDonnell Douglas,'' Mr. Whitlow says.
The company's hand is strengthened by current low production rates. Boeing is delivering only about half as many planes as it was in 1992. Many cash-strapped airlines won't mind if Boeing deliveries are temporarily halted by the strike, Whitlow adds.
To help its members hold out, the union is about to begin paying strikers $100 a week.