SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- The rapid and continuing expansion of the information industry could be just what the union doctors ordered -- a rare chance for the country's struggling labor movement to regain its long dwindling power and influence.
The largely non-union firms along the so-called Information Superhighway provide labor with its greatest opportunity -- and greatest challenge -- since the 1930s. Unions rose to great prominence then by organizing the heavy industries that had come to dominate the economy. Now they are faced with unionizing the information industry that is coming to dominate today's economy, a task at least as difficult but potentially at least as rewarding.
No one knows better than Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, one of the nation's largest and most important unions. Most of the CWA's 700,000 members work in the telecommunications, cable, broadcasting, printing and entertainment fields in which employers are combining to form new multimedia operations on the ''Information Superhighway.''
Mr. Bahr accurately describes many of the newly formed enterprises as ''aggressively anti-union.'' He says the crucial question is, ''Will they be able to evade unionization. . . . Will they be allowed to run away from fair labor standards while thumbing their noses at the Clinton administration's goal of creating more high-wage jobs in this exploding new field?''
Trying to make certain that won't happen will be ''our mission for the rest of the decade,'' he promises.
The mission is not only to organize employees of the new non-union firms, but also to protect CWA members at the older firms. Their employers will find it increasingly difficult to resist the competitive pressure of the new companies -- what Mr. Bahr foresees as ''the inevitable downward pressure on our union-won wages, benefits and working conditions'' that will occur if the companies aren't unionized.
Nearly 3 million workers are involved, people who produce and distribute information, build and maintain communication networks, sell products, service customers, provide entertainment.
The organizers' first targets are cable television firms, which pose the greatest immediate threat to the status of CWA members. Only about 5 percent of the country's 95,000 cable TV workers are unionized. The others earn only about 60 percent of what CWA-represented telephone-company employees get for similar work. What's more, cable companies pay out only about $3,000 a year in benefits, two-thirds less than paid out by phone companies.
Larry Cohen, the CWA's director of organization, says the cable firms are typical of the union's targets: ''They fight organizing every step of the way.''
No less hostile are employers in the mushrooming cellular/wireless communication field, probably the most rapidly growing branch of the information industry. It's almost 100 percent non-union.
It obviously won't be easy going for the Communications Workers. But don't forget that the union once managed to organize virtually the entire telephone industry, in those days before an ''Information Superhighway'' was even thought of, and managed to retain its strength despite deregulation of the industry and the onset of many small non-union phone companies.
It is not working alone. The AFL-CIO fully backs its efforts, and unions in related fields -- the International Typographical Union and National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians among them -- have merged with the CWA in order to present a tightly united front.
Even that may not be enough for a union victory. But if it is, it will be labor's greatest victory in more than six decades.
Dick Meister is a veteran labor reporter.