For most kids growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, a special occasion meant a trip to Disneyland. John A. Boardman's mother, a liberal activist, took the family on drives through Orange County, telling them of how orange pickers were mistreated.

Since those days, Boardman, now 51, has fought one battle after another for organized labor, trying to unionize clothing makers in the Deep South and hotel employees in Northern Virginia. Now as the top negotiator for the Washington hotel workers union, Unite Here Local 25, he is facing a crucial test of his leadership in a movement he has known since childhood.

In recent decades, negotiations between major D.C. hotels and the union representing their employees have usually been civil; the last major strike was in 1946. That changed in the last year, as Local 25, under Boardman, adopted a hard line on several key demands, especially improved working conditions and a shorter-than-usual contract that would expire the same year as hotel union contracts in other major cities.

When the old contract covering 3,800 employees at 14 major hotels expired Sept. 15 and negotiations broke down, Boardman promised a strike -- and as recently as a week ago described one as imminent. Since a round of negotiations last Tuesday, Boardman has backed away from his most aggressive language, though he continues to say that D.C. hotel workers will ultimately walk out if their demands are not met. Negotiations are scheduled to resume today.

It has been an abrupt shift, leading to an unprecedented level of acrimony at the bargaining table, a hotel representative said.

"We see a guy who in the past has been a civil, intelligent, rational representative of employees who's been able to negotiate a very good contract for his people suddenly change," said Peter Chatilovicz, a lawyer who has represented major D.C. hotels in their labor negotiations since 1981, in an interview conducted before last week's mild detente.

In particular, Chatilovicz said Boardman adopted the style of New York hotel union officials who have been at the bargaining table advising him on the negotiations.

"Frankly, he's taken on the personality of the two guys who have come in from New York, Peter Ward and Jim Donovan, who sit there and call us liars and cheats and thieves," Chatilovicz said. "It appears Boardman has been the victim of body snatchers from New York."

The negotiations Tuesday were more civil and devoid of personal insults, Chatilovicz said Friday, though he said Boardman and other union negotiators still were unreasonable in their substantive demands.

Boardman, in an interview Friday, acknowledged that he and Local 25 have taken a harder line than in the past. He said that the mistake was in being too passive before.

"We were in the mode of, when an issue came up with employees, we would respond to it," he said. "But we weren't solicitous. We weren't engaged. And I take responsibility for that."

"This time, we went out and asked employees what matters to them," Boardman said. "Now we're fighting for it." He said the more assertive stance came about last winter as he sat down to plot out the year and the union's goals in a new contract. He concluded the time had come to more aggressively determine the issues on members' minds and make no compromises to achieve them. As a result, the union's main goals include what it characterizes as "respect and dignity" issues, demanding that hotels not bother workers on their breaks, that workloads not be increased without negotiation, and similar changes to the contract.

"My charge is to talk to these folks, and see that their hopes and dreams come forward in the contract process," Boardman said.

The demand for a two-year contract, which would align Washington hotel workers with those in New York, Chicago, and other big cities in 2006, bubbled up not from workers, but from Boardman and national union colleagues, who describe it as a way to increase leverage on pay, benefits, and work quality issues next time around.

Boardman said he asked Ward and Donovan, the New York hotel union negotiators, to assist him because of their deep experience and hard-charging bargaining style.

After his childhood being exposed to various liberal causes, Boardman bounced around in his late teens and early twenties, reading the works of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and other classic thinkers in economics on his own before ultimately graduating from American University.

In the 1970s, he worked as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, trying to unionize factories in the south. Those efforts were frequently successful, but many of the plants closed down, moving the work overseas. To Boardman, the experience made organizing in the hotel business look like a particularly promising avenue for the labor movement.

"You can't just move a D.C. hotel to China," Boardman said last week.

In 1977, he went to work as an organizer for Local 25, becoming a protege of longtime union head Ron Richardson. When Richardson went to work for the national hotel union in 1996, Boardman took over the local.

"He was just naturally the person I relied on, and it only made sense for him to follow me," Richardson said last week. "He's very smart, he's well-spoken, he writes well."

As executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, Boardman was paid $70,182 last year. As union head, he has played at various times the warrior and the technocrat.

Boardman, wearing a dapper gray suit and deep blue shirt with French cuffs, delivered a rousing speech to hundreds of union members earlier this month as they prepared for the negotiations, yelling until hoarse that they would demand respect and dignity from their employers. The workers responded with raucous applause, making the event a combination pep rally and church sermon.

But he is also at times a quiet administrator. He studied business at George Washington University, becoming one of a relatively few labor leaders with an MBA degree, and has launched significant upgrades to the union's technology for tracking members.

One union demand has been non-negotiable through the rounds of bargaining. The union has insisted that workers be allowed to attend all negotiating sessions, that there be none of the back-room, off-the-record negotiations that were the norm as past contracts were hashed out.

"In 26 years of doing this, that's the greatest moment to me," Boardman said Friday. "To see every single one of these sessions, members show up."

John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, has turned his office into a food bank and processing center for laid-off hotel workers.