The nation's high-tech firms - many of them bearing the image of freewheeling , shirt-sleeve capitalism and contented work forces - are finding a new adversary knocking on their doors: organized labor.
No national campaign is under way to target electronics and computer companies. But in the wake of layoffs and wage freezes, some individual unions and worker groups across the country are pushing to get a foot in the door of the now union-free high-tech sector.
In New England, some two dozen workers largely from the Boston area recently formed a ''high-tech network.'' The group is not directly affiliated with any union. But it does work closely with local unions, including the Communications Workers of America and the International Union of Electrical Workers. The group expresses concerns about wages, job safety, and working conditions through a bimonthly newsletter, as well as forums and handbills.
In California, a local glassworkers' union is stepping up a campaign to organize workers at Atari Inc. in the wake of Atari's February layoff of 1,700 workers. Labor leaders say at least two other union drives in the Silicon Valley area either are under way or about to begin in a coordinated effort by some half-dozen local unions.
Recently elected Teamster chief Jackie Presser has said he wants to organize workers in Silicon Valley firms and move into technology-related fields as part of a new strategy for his troubled union.
These are the first salvos in what is likely to be a prolonged war between organized labor and high-tech companies over the next decade. Experts say unions must move into the booming high-tech sector to build up their dwindling ranks. ''They are going to have to start to organize the unorganized,'' says Roger Abrams, a labor expert at Case Western Reserve University.
Most organizing efforts focus on blue-collar assembly line workers. Skilled employees, such as engineers and technicians, will be tough for unions to sign up. ''The symbols of the blue-collar worker and the idea of esprit de corps are alien to white-collar high-tech people,'' says Benjamin Aaron, a UCLA labor-law professor.
Past pushes to organize high-tech workers, particularly in California, have foundered. A 1982 survey by the American Electronics Association trade group showed unions won only 7 of 37 elections at member firms across the US between 1977 and 1982. Only 5 percent of 738 surveyed firms had organized work forces.
For their part, many electronics and computer companies are not intimidated by the spurt of union activity. ''We're always concerned,'' says Roger Brown, industrial relations vice-president at Sanders Associates in Nashua, N.H. ''But I haven't been notified by any member companies in the region of visible organizing yet.'' Biology gets high research prioritym
''Smart'' robots may soon be able to mow your lawn. And lasers are being developed that could separate uranium isotopes. Nevertheless, the next stage of scientific discovery may well belong to the biologists.
This is reflected in a recent report on promising frontiers in science and technology. Every five years Congress asks a group from the scientific, engineering, and medical communities where the country can best put federal research dollars to work.
Four of eight areas pinpointed in the latest report - third in the series - are biology related. Two others are familiar: robotics and lasers. The remaining two are turbulence in fluids (involving such things as better designs for turbines) and surface science (which, for instance, tries to prevent corrosion in bridges and power plants). Cracking some tough nutsm
Two University of Georgia researchers have come up with a device that cracks pecans by firing tiny aluminum pellets at the shells. Result: perfect pecan halves at least 90 percent of the time. Conventional cracking machines yield fewer than 70 percent perfectly halved nuts. . . . Bell Labs may put out a phone within two years that recognizes voice commands and needs no dialing. . . . California farmers are using kites painted to look like hawks to scare off crop-preying birds.