There were more drawbacks than benefits for union members at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, as far as employes Linda Schmidt and Norma Leonardo were concerned. So the two women, who together have worked at the commission for nearly 40 years, did what any union organizer might do.

They drew up petitions calling for an election to disband the two-year-old white-collar union, printed fliers airing their complaints and rallied their friends and co-workers to protest. The election, held earlier last month, cost the public employes union its certification and membership.

Late last year, non-union blue-collar workers employed by Montgomery County were given two options during a special election: AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes) or no representation. The employes overwhelmingly chose no representation -- and no union.

After more than a year without a contract, nurses at the three publicly owned hospitals in Prince George's County decided they had had enough. In protest, union members of the local Maryland Association of Nurses have worn black armbands while on their rounds during the last three weeks. Tomorrow, they again return to the bargaining table.

With little heavy industry, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have never been big union strongholds like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where card-carrying members are as common as the smokestacks that pepper the sky, and political careers rise or fall with union support or opposition.

But these are tough times for the white- and blue-collar public employe unions in Montgomery and Prince George's.

Membership is down. AFSCME, one of Prince George's largest unions, has dropped to 740 members in the past two years, down from 1,500. There are few requests to form new unions, and where a request was made recently, the union lost.

Unions are being disbanded. In addition to the WSSC white-collar union, two out of six AFSCME unions have been decertified during the last two years in Prince George's County. Contract negotiations are taking longer, and the flow of dues into some of the largest unions is almost nonexistent.

The reasons cited for these problems are markedly different in the two counties.

In Montgomery, labor organizers say there are three villains: tradition (few county residents have a family history of union activism), a federal employe mentality ("once a job, always a job"), and virtually no collective bargaining laws. The Fraternal Order of Police is the only public employes union in the county that has the power to negotiate for a binding contract.

But in Prince George's, a jurisdiction with a high number of blue-collar workers and liberal labor organizing and collective bargaining laws, union organizers point to a different culprit. The administration of Republican County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, they claim, has been hostile to unions since the day Hogan took office four years ago. The two public employes union decertifications in the county have taken place during his administration. Hogan, says one organizer, has made the county the "toughest place in the country to negotiate" -- a charge Hogan angrily denounces, citing the "18 or so" contracts he has signed during his administation.

Whatever the reasons for the waning of union strength, labor organizers in the two counties predict that the recession will cause a big swing upward in membership. County employes in areas like Montgomery, they say, facing for the first time the fact that government jobs aren't jobs forever and that Reagan RIFs may mean more RIFs in Montgomery, will begin to turn to unions to provide services and protections they previously felt they did not need.

"We have found, in these difficult times, that in the public sector there is a growing interest in our existing locals to hold on and become stronger," said Paul Manner, a state AFSCME organizer and former AFSCME negotiator in Prince George's. Oddly, Manner said, evidence of the strength can be found in the AFSCME decertifications in Prince George's County -- or rather, in the fact that there have not been more of them. Three of the remaining four AFSCME local units are still negotiating for a contract with the county and have not received a cost-of-living increase since August 1980. The county's crossing guards, represented by AFSCME, recently reached a settlement with the county, although the agreement must still be ratified by the full membership.

"We're amazed and humbled there haven't been more decertifications," said Manner.

"Public employes need their unions," he continued. "People used to join unions to protect their salaries; now they're joining them to protect their jobs."

In Montgomery, where there never has been a tradition of unionism, organizers will have a much larger pool to organize than in Pringe George's. The majority of employes directly paid by the county administration are not members of a union. The only union, Montgomery County Government Employees Organization, has 800 members, out of 2,300 white-collar workers who are eligible. There are 4,529 full-time county government employes. However, because there is no collective bargaining in the county and the union is an in-house organization staffed by employes who already hold full-time jobs, outside organizers do not view MCGEO as a potent political force.

Other Montgomery public employe groups include two teachers unions, the police union and the firefighters union.

"People in Montgomery County just don't perceive a need for a union," said Ed Rovner, an aide to County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist.

The view of Linda Schmidt, a leader in the ouster of a WSSC union, illustrates the point. "What the union said they could do for us, we already had," said Schmidt, a secretary for 16 years at the bicounty agency. "Unions were great in the 1920s, when men and women were placed in back rooms with no heat and no electricity. But I've always been treated well here. If I have a problem I can go to the boss or to the commission."

In Prince George's, union organizers expect their battle scars to heal as soon as Hogan steps down at the end of this year. Democratic council member Parris Glendening, the leading contender to succeed Hogan, is generally looked upon as a good friend of unions.

"We don't expect Glendening to give away the house, but we do expect him to bring back decency and integrity to the workplace," said Manner.

AFSCME, the largest public workers union in the state, also represents employes of the municipalities of College Park and Bowie and blue-collar workers at WSSC, bringing their total union membership in the two counties to 5,100, down from a high of nearly 6,000 a couple of years ago. AFSCME still represents employes in the following four groups in Prince George's County: the Housing Authority and the Department of Aging, the Department of Public Works, the Department of License and Permits and Animal Control, and the county's crossing guards. The two unions that were decertified represented correction officers and clerical workers.

In addition to its problems with decertification, AFSCME has been unable to collect any dues from union members employed by Prince George's County since August 1980. The county will not deduct dues from employes' paychecks because the union has yet to reach an agreement with the county administration.

AFSCME isn't the only union in Prince George's to have had a tough time negotiating with the administration. Members of the county's nurses union, numbering 750, have been without a contract since June 1981 and the Fraternal Order of Police settled one of its contracts retroactively in July 1981, after at least one year of the new contract had already expired. Although retroactive raises were granted to the police, the police union is suing the county to recover interest the county earned on money that would have been spent on the raises.

"With Larry Hogan you have to capitulate on everything if you want to get a contract signed," said Sgt. Laney Hester, head of the police union until last January.

Hogan characterized criticisms of his negotiations with the unions as "off the wall" and exaggerated. He said he has no problems with union members, only with some of their leaders.

He charged that AFSCME "is perhaps the most radical union in the country" and that the only way its leaders like to do business is "to embarrass elected officials and not concentrate on the issues." In fact, he added, he has had no problems with the other public employe unions in the county, citing the county physicians union, "oilers and boilers" maintenance workers and the nurses.

The nurses were given two unrequested raises totaling 13 percent during the last two years, Hogan said. He added that contract negotiations were broken off by mutual agreement in September 1981 when Hogan was trying to lease the hospitals to a private management firm. Negotiations were resumed in February.

"No problems? There's been no progress," said negotiator Paula Singer of the Maryland Association of Nurses, referring to current contract talks for the county's three publicly operated hospitals: Prince George's General and Greater Laurel-Beltsville hospitals and Bowie Health Center.

The president of the local chapter, which represents 750 nurses, seconded Singer's remarks. "As far as I'm concerned, Larry Hogan is a union buster," said Carolyn Larkin, who added that the two raises were given as emergency measures because the hospital had experienced a 70 percent turnover in nurses and was short 175 nurses.

"Larry Hogan is picking at the guts and blood of the unions. He is objecting to those parts of our contract that we won 10 years ago and he picks issues that he knows the union cannot compromise on," said Manner.

While organizers are looking forward to a change in county administrators in Prince George's, political shifts at the ballot box this fall also are expected to augur well for teachers unions in the two counties, both of which once were strong, but have limped through salary negotiations during the last several years. In Prince George's County, 502 teachers were laid off after Hogan demanded massive school budget cuts. The union represents more than 6,000 county teachers.

In Montgomery, after three months of often-bitter negotiations, the teachers union accepted a 6 1/2 percent cost-of-living raise from the fiscally conservative board majority. As late as the night before the increase was approved, it was termed "totally unacceptable" by the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 5,600 teachers. The conservative majority on the board is facing a stiff fight in the fall election.