Before the sun rises, a corps of optimists gathers at the Rodman's Local 201 on Rhode Island Avenue NE. They sip coffee, gossip and wait. They wait for telephoned requests for workers.

Dozens of orange cards hang on the wall, each with the name of a union member. If his card is on the wall, the man needs work.

Gaither Musgrove, the union's business agent, says that only about 45 percent of his local's members are working full time. In the heady days of 1974, this local put in 1.4 million man-hours at construction jobs. "In '81 we put in 400,000," said Musgrove.

A few months ago, Musgrove's assistant business agent was laid off because the union couldn't afford to pay him.

By 9 a.m. the optimists are mostly gone, usually home, without a day's work.

The atmosphere is depressing and the outlook is grim. These are hard times for unionized construction workers in this area. Building has dropped, construction companies often are using newly arrived immigrants who will work for lower wages, and the government is not enforcing the Davis-Bacon Act that requires union wage rates on all government-contracted work, union men say.

Union health and pension plans get hurt when union members do not work the required minimum hours a week: No work, fewer benefits. Many locals are losing membership.

At Bricklayers, Masons Helpers and Laborers Local 74 at 1806 D St. NE, treasurer John Wormley has one word for the shape of his union: "Terrible."

Wormley reports that "maybe 1,500" of his 2,579 members are working. Two years ago, the union had 2,900 members.

"About 40 percent are unemployed for the last seven to eight months," Wormley said. "They're almost hitting the soup lines, if you ask me. People are just begging, there's nothing else to do. Right here, every day, they're looking for jobs. There's nowhere we can send 'em; there's no work.

"I don't know what people are going to do. They're trying to destroy the poor class, the working-class people."