Labor experts say Unite Here, the newly merged union that is representing the D.C. hotel workers in their current contract dispute, is one of the most outspoken and toughest unions under the AFL-CIO umbrella.

One example: Unite, which represented textile workers before its merger, took an unusual tack in negotiations on behalf of airline laundry workers with Royal Airline Laundry Services. The union found workers who said they were being asked to increase productivity by repackaging used blankets and headphones without laundering them first.

So Unite's president, Bruce S. Raynor, started a campaign in late 2000 in which air passengers were given a test tube and swab to find out whether bacteria was crawling on the blankets they cuddled with in their window seats.

Airlines called Royal and begged officials to settle with the union, recalled Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. What followed, she said, was a contract that provided workers with more pay and better working conditions. "They are creative, aggressive, and willing to do what it takes," Bronfenbrenner said.

Some of that same attitude is on display in Washington this week as Unite, which merged this summer with the hotel workers' union, called Here, presses for a new contract for local hotel workers.

Besides finding resourceful ways to get members' issues heard, Unite Here is adept at involving college students and recent graduates -- an enthusiastic population rarely tapped by the union world -- who are eager to help organize immigrant and low-wage workers. Both unions also have a history of not backing down.

In other words, what is old is new again.

"They remind people like myself of the kind of full-throttle organizing that was in the '30s and '40s," said Robert A. Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois.

But organizing in the 21st century has not been easy. Union membership has been on the decline for years as manufacturing jobs disappeared and the economy changed toward a more white-collar environment. In 2001, Unite had 207,000 members, while Here had 241,000. The combined group now claims 440,000 members . Labor union membership as a whole dropped to 16 million in 2002 -- 13 percent of the workforce.

Unions have suffered, said Charles B. Craver, labor law professor at George Washington University and author of the book "Can Unions Survive?" "If the AFL-CIO can't organize big service companies, they're dead."

That's why Raynor's efforts to negotiate a new contract for hotel workers here, part of an effort to bolster union influence in large, corporate hotel chains, are being watched closely.

Raynor, 54, now serves as president of Unite Here. He graduated from Cornell and spent his life organizing companies, mostly in the South. He lives in Nyack, N.Y., with his wife and has five children.

Raynor has "a strange way of looking at things," said Bill Adams, a labor relations consultant for corporations. "He thinks if you get angry, you'll be successful. That shows how he runs things."

One focus of the local negotiations is a two-year contract, as opposed to the typical three-year contract. That's so it will expire at the same time as contracts in New York and other major cities.

"For the union and the workers to have representation with these chains, we can't negotiate Washington, D.C., as if you're dealing with a dozen locally owned hotels," Raynor said in a phone interview yesterday. "We think by the union contracts expiring the same year, these multinational companies will sit down to talk with us."

Seeking contracts with the same termination date is a practice that has been used for years, though it was more common decades ago, according to Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles. The rubber workers union, which covers workers for companies such as Firestone, has established the same termination date as well.

Unite Here has "mapped out the country, saying, 'Here's the employer, here is where they interlock. We have to get all these areas to the same standard and locked into the same deals. Then ultimately . . . we may be able to pull off a nationwide strike,' " Bruno said.

Before the two unions merged, Unite and Here created the New Unity Partnership, led by Raynor and John W. Wilhelm, president of Here. The group was designed to help unions work together to gain more power as corporate consolidation became the norm. It came about as workers and union leaders voiced concern that the AFL-CIO had not kept up with the transformations of the global workplace.

Unite and Here merged in July because "we recognize that corporations are getting bigger," Raynor said yesterday. The two unions have a history of representing immigrants and low-wage issues, and thought that together, they could form a stronger force. "Membership-wise, we're the same, and philosophically we're the same," Raynor said.

In addition, Unite suffered from losses due to globalization, and Here suffered greatly as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. So merging meant greater financial resources.

"Here has history in recent years of dynamic organizing. Unite has a lot of financial resources which Here has not had," Milkman said. "So putting those together could be very powerful. We'll see how they do."

According to a filing with the Department of Labor, Unite has $177 million in net assets and owns and operates Amalgamated Bank in New York.

Local union officials said they have $1 million in dues and investments to help its 3,500 D.C. workers weather a long strike, if needed.

Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth and Neil Irwin and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

Ketty Figueroa introduces daughter Felisha to union workers. Figueroa spent the past six months educating union members.Workers pack into the Masonic Temple for a meeting of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.