Charlie Mercer's job at the AFL-CIO is to look for the union label. As head of the Union Label and Service Trades Department, he sends out a monthly newsletter promoting the value of union-made goods to the federation's 13 million members.

So Mercer said he was "embarrassed, totally embarrassed" to discover in December that the design studio his department had hired to produce the newsletter couldn't wear the union label because it was a nonunion shop.

Mercer's problems began last summer when the union label department changed graphic designers for the newsletter, Label Letter. When he contracted with Evans Design of Bethesda, which does the bulk of its work for unions, Mercer said he asked if the company was a union shop and was told by owner Bill Evans that it was.

It wasn't. It is now.

Evans said he thought his firm was a union shop because his only employee, his wife, belonged to the Columbia Typographical Union.

"They asked me if I was union and I said yes. My wife's been paying dues since 1982," Evans said yesterday.

But the firm never had a union contract in its 15-year history, even though Evans estimates that 90 percent of his business is with unions.

Since taking on the Union Label account, Evans has added three employees, but has continued to operate without a contract.

Evans explained that there are very few union graphic designers in the Washington area; the craft seems to fall between the cracks in union organizing efforts, particularly with the widespread emergence of desktop publishing.

He said he went to the president of the Columbia Typographical Union in 1982 when he started the business, but "at the time there was no such thing as a union for graphic design studios."

When Mercer called Evans in mid-December wanting to know "what the hell's going on," Evans said he quickly found a union. Within a week, the company signed a contract with Columbia Typographical Union, No. 101-12.