Freedom of choice in the labor market. To some, that's a concept as American as baseball and apple pie. To others, it means right to work and a serious threat to unions.

Michigan is overdue for a thoughtful consideration of fundamental labor law. Should workers be compelled to join a labor union to hold their jobs? Since 1947, when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, 21 states have exercised the right-to-work option by making it illegal for union membership to be a condition of employment. Michigan retains its status as a compulsory unionism state, but more because of inertia, misconceptions and fear of controversy than because of any genuine public discussion.

Such a discussion must begin with recognition of an important fact: Workers are already exercising a surprising degree of choice; and, increasingly, they are choosing to work in nonunion settings. From its high of nearly 40 percent in the 1950s, the percentage of the nation's workers who are union members has fallen to barely 16 percent. Factor out government workers and the figure is almost in single digits: 10.3 percent of the private sector work force.

The same trend is evident in Michigan, where unionized workers comprise 25 percent of all workers and 19 percent of the private sector work force--half the figures of 1960. The United Auto Workers, which boasted 1.5 million members at its peak 30 years ago, now counts fewer than 800,000.

Much change has occurred in the labor market since 1960, some of it because of unions themselves. A wide range of legal protections and social benefits has rendered obsolete the once-popular union caricature of the helpless worker. Arguably, some of those protections and benefits have produced costs and problems of their own, but their existence makes it ever harder to convince workers that they need unions to help them.

More importantly, the nature of work itself is being transformed--away from monotonous assembly-line jobs that invite union intervention and toward more independent, flexible, creative, and individualistic work that makes anachronisms of punch clocks and picket lines. In recent weeks, the violence employed by striking workers at Detroit's two daily newspapers has probably reinforced a widespread public feeling that unions are dinosaurs on the road to a noisy extinction.

Still, Michigan will never become a right-to-work state if people think it would cause a decline in living standards. Right to work means "right to work for less" as the saying goes. But more than 75 percent of the people who work in Michigan pay no dues to any union, work for themselves or bargain individually with employers, and somehow manage for the most part to do rather well. That should at least raise a few questions about this old canard.

Studies that purport to show higher wages in the 29 compulsory unionism states than in the 21 other states are being discredited by more recent and detailed analysis that accounts for differences in the cost of living. Economist James T. Bennett of George Mason University, for instance, has shown that residents of central cities and surrounding suburbs in states without right-to-work laws pay 24.5 percent more for food, housing, health care, transportation, utilities, property taxes and college tuition than do residents of similar areas in right-to-work states.

Adjusting for the cost of living, including lower taxes, families in the 21 right-to-work states actually earn $2,852 more in real income per year than their counterparts in states without right-to-work laws. And that gap is actually growing--it's now double what it was in 1987. The evidence indicates that high wages attract union organizing, not the other way around.

States with right-to-work laws are leading the country in economic growth. Between 1960 and 1993, the number of manufacturing jobs in those states rose by 77 percent, far in excess of other states. Since Idaho became the 21st right-to-work state by a decisive vote of its citizens in 1986, its economy has gone from being a chronic laggard to being among the top half-dozen growth leaders in the nation every year.

Experience is pointing strongly in one direction: right to work really means the right to work for more--more individual freedom, more jobs, and more income in real terms. On the issue of union membership, it is not anti-union; it is purely and simply pro-choice. The only thing unions have to fear from right to work is the free choice of the very workers union leaders say they are in business to help.

If Michigan remains wedded to the past while the world around it becomes increasingly competitive with workers enjoying new freedoms, let it not be because we closed our eyes to the evidence and refused to think.