Union organizer Bill Sam was in a good mood as he wheeled his aged Oldsmobile through the dry, wind-blown back streets and trailer parks here, knocking on doors, stroking house pets and talking solidarity in a land where even the state symbol bears the word "Lone," as in star.

His target group was pitifully small--the 41 hourly workers at a nursing home--and it required about as much energy and expense as organizing a big factory. But even such a minute promise is enticing to labor in these parts.

"We've already rented a hall for the celebration," Sam said.

His optimism proved justified a few days later when the low-paid nursing home workers voted 37 to 2 (with two votes contested) in favor of letting the Service Workers Union represent them.

Such sweet and rare tastes of victory have to carry Sam and his ilk through some long sour spells.

Sam is a foot soldier of the AFL-CIO's Houston Organizing Project (HOP), labor's million-dollar SWAT team in anti-union territory.

Union membership in Texas is less than 12 percent, or 48th in the nation, and, as hard times have squelched the economic boom here, workers threatened with layoffs have become even more reluctant to risk their jobs in a union struggle.

Businessmen have, in effect, circled their wagons and, for good measure, have hired consultants to hold unions at bay.

In 1980 unions won 44 percent of the 201 elections held under auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. In 1981 they won 39.4 percent of the 198 elections.

But the unionists argue that such figures do not tell the whole tale.

For one thing, labor's political fortunes have taken a bright turn and a new battle front has been opened.

In the 1982 elections, all union-backed statewide candidates here won. Now, with a more sympathetic governor (Mark White), labor leaders are working to get the somewhat friendlier legislature to rewrite laws to make organizing and maintaining unions easier.

For another, they say, the NLRB statistics do not reflect some union gains, such as the 300 voluntary contract agreements reached in the first year of HOP, many in the building and construction trades.

But none predicts any spectacular results soon.

"We're in for the long haul," said Bob Comeaux, director of HOP.

Twenty-nine international unions and locals are funding the joint organizing drive, which is patterned after a successful project in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

In its 19 months of operations HOP has added 7,500 workers to union lists. Nearly half are public employes, whose union activities are limited under state law and who have to be signed anew every time wages and dues are changed.

Rather than focusing on major anti-union employers, HOP generally has targeted smaller facilities where workers have expressed an interest in a union, and which are profitable operations.

The most promising targets, these days, are minimumn-wage service workers, predominantly women and minorities.

Efforts to organize Hispanics are a particularly sensitive subject, in part because not all unions are of the same mind on what to do about workers in the country illegally. Also, according to AFL-CIO officials, some of these workers refuse to sign any piece of paper, including a union card, for fear of attracting attention of the authorities.

As to HOP strategies and targets, Comeaux is as secretive as a guerrilla in enemy territory.

"Standing outside the plant gate doesn't work any more," he said. "You have a whole new breed of highly paid union busters, employers who use intimidation and coercion. The support you have has to go underground." HOP works to build pro-union committees inside a company before the firm knows they are there, he said, and to educate employes so that when the company gears up its anti-union campaign, "they can withstand it."

HOP's sources of intelligence about companies, the high-technology equipment it uses and other such subjects are hush-hush, he said. In one current organizing campaign involving 2,000 workers, "out of 30 people on the staff, only three of us know anything about it. It's on a need-to-know basis."

Business executives and the consultants who help them fight the unions say the organizers' biggest problem is that most workers simply do not want to join, that they see no advantage in a union.

It is easy to find workers who will confirm that. Many here associate unions with disruption, corruption and other evils.

Those who take care of elderly patients at the Beaumont Convalescent Center are among the exceptions.

They are mostly women, some black and some white, some young and some nearly as old as the patients they tend.

Dorothy Jeanne Toliver, 37, has worked at the center for 13 years as a medication aide. She started out at $1.25 per hour and now makes $3.75, with a recent 10-cent-an-hour raise, she said.

"We get no benefits, and people can come in off the street and make the same as I make," she said. "Look at this."

She held out five letters she had received from the nursing home management in recent days, urging her to "Vote no," and warning that the union's promises mean nothing, reminding that "strikers lose their jobs."

"I never got so much attention from the top in my life," she said, shaking her head. "All those stamps. All that typing. I want the union, and I don't care what it takes."

The victory at this nursing home, coming on the heels on two others in the area, has union officials talking of "momentum." They won a union election at another nearby nursing home, 175 to 11, a year ago. In 1979 (before HOP) they had organized Baptist Hospital, the first in the state to go union.

But winning union representation here does not lead automatically to a good contract with higher pay and better working conditions. Some newly organized workers have celebrated their election victory only to find themselves facing an employer who refuses to bargain, or negotiating for as long as a year only to come up with a contract offering slight if any improvements.

Many non-union employers, meanwhile, have learned to improve pay and benefits just enough to remove the workers' incentive to unionize. After Baptist organized, other hospitals in the area raised pay scales and now "they keep just ahead of us," said one union worker. "We raised everybody else's standards."

Margie Anders, administrator of the Beaumont Convalescent Center, indicated that negotiations will probably be tough there as well.

"I am very disappointed the election went like it did," she said. "I don't feel unions have any place in a nursing home. The demands they make as far as raises and benefits, there's no possible way these demand can be met."

The state sets the rates patients pay, she said. "I realize most of those people don't make enough money, and I'd love to be able to give them more. But if you don't have it, you can't give it."

Organizer Sam, a second-generation union man whose father, a refinery worker, had moved the family from Mobile, says he believes strongly in the promise of the union and is prepared for the long battle.

"Most of these people have no union tradition. They don't know what a union is all about. Workers will take a nickel more, keep the union out and still get treated like a child. A union is not about money. It's a voice, it's not being treated like a child."

For the newly organized workers, the lesson has just begun.