In a private meeting room at a Williamsburg hotel, 35 corporate executives, managers and lawyers from 16 states and Puerto Rico gathered to discuss a very sensitive subject. They paid $650 each, plus hotel and meal costs, for an intensive two-day, 12-hour session of advice from attorney Francis T. Coleman Jr. on his specialty: how to eliminate labor unions.

"The time is ripe," Coleman said, as company officials in their shirt sleeves or in business suits took notes, "for employers to examine what the procedures are for deunionization... . There is nothing illegal. Nothing to be ashamed of. No sacrilege. Nothing unethical."

Eliminating unions, he said, "is every bit as legal as the actions of unions to organize employes in the first place."

Filling the room were officials from Fortune 500 companies and from small businesses -- with one thing in common: labor problems in a highly competitive economic environment. Most of them were fed up with their unions or afraid of getting one. They wanted to learn from Coleman how to work better with their unions or how to control them -- or how to get rid of them.

The management goal of thwarting unionism is stronger in the United States than in any other western industrial nation, according to many labor-management experts.

Antiunionism, they said, is fueled by the relatively high wages achieved by unions, by work rules and seniority protections that limit management power, by the dogged resistance unions often exhibit to change and by the fact that public opinion of labor unions has eroded in the United States, partly because of a lingering image that unions are selfish and sometimes corrupt institutions.

A decade ago, seminars such as Coleman's -- entitled "Deunionizing" -- were very rare. Now they are commonplace. "Management opposition to unionism has increased by leaps and bounds" and is a key factor in the union decline, said Harvard University labor economists Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, authors of "What Do Unions Do?" an economic study of the impact of unions on companies and society.

Coleman, a 47-year-old former Marine captain and veteran Washington labor lawyer, is one of several thousand management consultants and lawyers who have made a lucrative business -- estimated at up to $250 million a year -- out of helping companies eliminate their unions or defeat efforts by their employes to form them. Coleman is the author of "The Deunionizing Handbook."

In addition to individual labor consultants, major business organizations such as the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and others have intermittently launched lobbying and promotion campaigns since the 1970s aimed at promoting a "union-free" America.

Coleman's seminar participants, on that particular day last year, included large manufacturers such as Carlisle Corp. of Ohio and Armstrong World Industries of Pennsylvania. An assistant attorney general of North Carolina wanted to stop union organizing among state workers, as did a New Jersey film distributor trying to keep out the Teamsters union.

A Puerto Rico casino owner wanted to learn more about handling labor problems, as did officials of the Washington Post Co., which deals with nine unions and eliminated a union in its press room after a highly publicized strike in 1975-1976.

Coleman agreed to allow a reporter to attend the Williamsburg sessions, although seminar participants were not initially aware of that.

"The key reasons for deunionizing are not wages and benefits," Coleman told the participants; rather, it is usually work rules set up under union contracts. Such rules, originated by union efforts to protect jobs and guarantee seniority preference to veteran workers, have become the major impediments that hurt profitability and lead companies to try to deunionize, he said.

"It is the manning and featherbedding, and the interference in management's ability to manage," Coleman said, "The biggest difficulty is the adversarial nature of the {union} relationship that blocks innovation... . The mindset that infests many labor unions is that they want employes to believe management is the enemy."

Sitting in the audience, William Skelly knew what Coleman meant. Skelly runs a 50-year-old factory for Carlisle Corp. in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, manufacturing $40 million worth of heavy-duty brake linings with a unionized work force of about 200.

Skelly, a company vice president -- and a former union member -- said he would love to get rid of Carlisle's union, Local 502 of the International Union of Electronics Workers at the Ridgeway, Pa., plant.

Skelly, who attends seminars along with officials from many corporations, said corporate frustration with unions is strong and deep: "With most of the management people I have contact with, the attitude {about unions} is really 'Enough of this bull,' " he said. "I call it the Popeye syndrome: I've had all I can stand, I can't stands no more."

From management's perspective, Skelly said, the problems with the IUE and its labor contract are many: Even though base pay is only $8.95 hourly, a union contract with an old piece-rate formula locks him into paying wages of more than $20 hourly for higher production; a rigid job-classification system prevents him from easily moving workers from one machine to another; a union seniority system forces him to lay off younger workers when some of them are better employes, and so on.

The union has resisted change, Skelly added. "We have tried to educate them, explain things in down-to-earth, common-sensical terms... . It hasn't worked. Cooperation and compromise no longer works in this facility."

When asked the solution to Carlisle's union problem, Skelly gave a one-word answer: "Fredericksburg."

The company, following a bitter strike in 1979, opened a new nonunion subsidiary in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1981, a more modern plant that is located in a "right-to-work" state where union-organizing is more difficult because state law prohibits union contracts that require workers to join unions or pay union dues.

By comparison to Pennsylvania, Fredericksburg's new nonunion plant is a manager's dream, Skelly said. Wages are lower. A single job title of "production operator" allows Carlisle to reassign any worker to any machine at any time. Management can lay off, reassign and discipline based simply on what it believes is best.

The president of the Pennsylvania union, William Washkow, accuses Skelly of misrepresenting the union's position and callously seeking to fire older workers.

He said the IUE has offered concessions, but the company appears bent on eventually eliminating most of their jobs. The Virginia plant's production already is almost equal to that of Pennsylvania, where Carlisle has laid off more than 100 union members in the last few years.

Coleman's seminar includes advice to companies about setting up nonunion "satellite plants" such as Carlisle's. It is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to remove work from a union plant specifically to eliminate union jobs and become nonunion. But if the new plant is carefully constructed as a separate operation with separate supervision, it will usually not run afoul of the law, Coleman said.

The tactics recommended at Coleman's seminars are varied: Like a political media specialist in an election campaign, he teaches how to package a print-and-videotape campaign for nonunion companies to use when confronted with a union trying to win a work place election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. He stresses building winning election themes: workers do not need unions, companies can meet their needs without resorting to unions and jobs could be jeopardized by strikes.

The best method for avoiding unions, Coleman stresses, is treating workers as well as possible: "A company that gets a union deserves a union, and they usually deserve the kind of union they get," he told them, quoting a well-traveled management dictum.