In July 1974, Richard M. Nixon was president, there were gasoline lines from the Arab oil embargo and the workers at the Lundy Packing Co. filed an unfair labor charge against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Thirteen years, three months and three presidents later, the NLRB issued a final ruling in the case. The workers were right, the board ruled. They had been unfairly treated by the Clinton, N.C., packinghouse.

Then there was the case of former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sam McCullum, who filed a complaint with the labor agency in 1982 charging that he had been dropped from the team because of his activities with the National Football League Players Association. Six years and five months later, long after his playing prime was over, the NLRB ruled in McCullum's favor.

During that time, the paperwork sat for 29 months on the desk of the NLRB's deputy chief counsel, who said he had a "mental block" about the case.

These were among several examples presented to Congress yesterday by the General Accounting Office as part of an investigation into how long it takes the NLRB to reach a conclusion.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee on employment and housing, opened the hearings by comparing the NLRB to the Bermuda Triangle, where boats and people simply disappear. "If there were a board game about collective bargaining, union organizing and worker's rights, one of the cards should read, 'Your case has been appealed {to} the NLRB in Washington -- lose five turns,' " Lantos said. "Another card should read, 'Go back to start.' "

Lantos said that between fiscal years 1984 and 1989 approximately 20 percent of the unfair labor cases filed with the board took more than two years to decide.

The five-member NLRB decides disputes under the National Labor Relations Act, the basic law protecting worker rights in the private sector. Organized labor has long argued that because it takes so long for the board to decide a case, the delays effectively wipe out many of the protections of the labor law. Union leaders have begun to argue that it is better to take to the streets to resolve a case than risk the time it takes to get a resolution through the NLRB.

The Lundy and McCullum cases were two of seven examples of cases that took far longer than two years for the board to decide during much of the 1980s.

The McCullum case wasn't the only one delayed because of a lengthy legal pause. The GAO cited the case of an employee of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. who complained that the company would not allow him a witness at a disciplinary hearing. For an 11-month period, the case sat on the desk of the NLRB chief counsel, who also had a "mental block." The board dismissed the complaint nine years and six months after it was filed.

It took the board seven years and three months to decide a petition by a professional union for the right to represent non-professionals at a college. The case, the GAO found, was "iced" -- put on hold -- for six of those years by the board.

At yesterday's hearings, NLRB Chairman James M. Stephens acknowledged the past delays -- most of which occurred before he took office -- and said steps were being taken to speed up the process. He said the board has developed a "Ten Most Wanted List" in which it identifies the 10 cases that have been longest in the system.

Stephens told the committee the GAO study has provided "some important insights into the board's decision-making process." He pointed out that during the period of the worst cases cited by the GAO, the NLRB experienced a high rate of turnover and vacancies and often was unable to function.

The GAO has suggested an outside limit of two years for deciding a case and Stephens said yesterday he agreed with that timetable. To help meet the goal, he said the NLRB has adopted a 6-6-6 rule in which a case that takes longer than six months in any one of the three stages of the NLRB's legal process will automatically be flagged to the board's attention.