Washington — The recession caused less trouble for William Wynn and Robert Welsch than for most other labor union leaders. While membership in many industrial unions - like the auto workers or steelworkers - was plunging, unions in the economy's service sector were either holding their own or gaining members at a somewhat reduced pace. And the service unions' longer-term outlook also is bullish.
''Membership stayed about even,'' in the United Food and Commercial Workers during the recession, says union president Wynn. Last year the 1.3 -million-member union signed up roughly the same number of retail store clerks, meatpackers, and food plant workers it lost to layoffs.
Meanwhile, the Service Employees International Union actually gained members last year, according to Mr. Welsch, executive assistant to the president.
''During the recession we grew at two-thirds the (normal) rate,'' of 25,000 to 30,000 a year, he says. The union's 750,000 members are public employees, hospital workers, or building maintenance personnel.
By comparison, since 1976, membership in the United Automobile Workers has dropped 23.6 percent, there are 47.3 percent fewer members on the rolls of the United Steelworkers of America, and the International Association of Machinists is 38.7 percent smaller.
Service unions are likely to continue outpacing industrial unions in growth as the economy recovers. Service-union leaders admit this is largely because the industries they are organizing are the fastest growing part of the economy.
Union membership trends ''are a reflection of industry'' affiliation, confirms Ben Fischer, director of the Center for Labor Studies at Carnegie-Mellon University.
The service sector is expected to continue to be the major source of new jobs , according to an AFL-CIO report entitled ''The Future of Work.'' Between 1940 and 1980 the service sector's share of total employment rose from 45 percent to about 70 percent. Included in the service sector are ''business and personal service industries such as health care, education, wholesale and retail trade, repair and maintenance, government, transportation, banking and insurance,'' the report notes.
The Labor Department also predicts that the industries with the largest job gains will be concentrated in the service sector. The biggest job gains between 1980 and 1990 will come in retail trade, restaurants, hospitals, and business services, the department says.
But signing up new union members from these industries will not be easy, union officials admit. And wage settlements probably will not rival those negotiated by industrial unions.
Although the projected expansion of the service sector offers promise to unions, their penetration to date has been relatively modest. Within the manufacturing field, some 35 percent of all workers are represented by unions, according to 1980 Department of Labor data, the most recent available. In services like maintenance employees or health care workers, representation is only 22.8 percent. And in the finance, insurance, and real estate industries, only 5 percent of the employees are unionized.
Why have unions not organized more service workers?
''It is a tougher nut to crack'' than the industrial sector, said June McMahon, research director at the Service Employees Union. ''Organizing in our sector is always difficult,'' adds Jacquelynn Ruff, executive director of District 925, a branch of the Service Employees Union which organizes secretaries and clerical workers.
One reason organizing is tough is that there are many more small employers. And costs are higher and it is more time consuming to organize in such a situation than to tackle a larger industrial concern.
Achieving a high rate of union coverage in an industry is a major labor goal since it is one of the keys to having a powerful impact on wages and benefits, research director McMahon notes. Service unions are also hampered by trying to extend their reach in a period when management resistance to unionization has increased.
''Management has learned some lessons from the past. They are getting to be more efficient and professional in labor relations,'' says Stephen J. Cabot, a lawyer who helps management resist union organizing bids. ''It is getting a higher priority level than ever before.''
Unions also find they must deal with different worker attitudes when attempting to organize office workers. Clerical and secretarial workers are ''people with a very personal relation with their boss,'' notes researcher McMahon.
It may take years of union success in the service sector to bring wages up to the level of industrial workers. In 1982, average weekly manufacturing earnings were $331. By contrast, an AFL report found, average weekly earnings were $245 in finance, insurance and real estate, $225 in personal and business services, and $198 in wholesale and retail trade.
As society shifts to an increasingly service oriented society, power within the union movement is likely to shift away from industrial union leaders and more to service union executives. Publicly, service union officials play down the shift. ''Power is not (only) based on numbers,'' Mr. Wynn says.
Next: The high-tech challenge to labor.