When top officials of the state's labor unions raised the prospect of Michigan becoming a "right-to-work" state in the recent campaign, they hoped that voters would be frightened away from supporting the incumbent governor.

"John Engler has a secret agenda for right-to-work," they charged. Governor Engler denied it, but never offered good reasons why Michigan should not adopt the right-to-work principle. The union leadership's effort to stir the electorate on this issue failed decisively, suggesting that Michigan is not the same state it was at the height of the union movement 40 years ago. Perhaps it's time that the law change too.

Right-to-work, in its broadest application, simply means that no man or woman may be compelled to join a labor union in order to hold a job. Since 1947, when Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to grant workers a choice in union membership, 21 states have enacted right-to-work laws. Until recently, the chance that Michigan might pass one seemed remote to nil-thanks to the substantial clout of organized labor.

Today, however, is not 1950. At 20 percent, the portion of Michigan's work force that is unionized is about half what it was forty years ago. In the information age, the nature of work itself is being transformed-away from traditional and monotonous assembly line jobs that invite union activity and toward more independent, flexible, creative, and individualistic work that makes anachronisms of punch clocks and picket lines. Service jobs, often not conducive to unionization, are huge in number and growing in importance. Unions are perceived by many people today as old-fashioned, high-cost barriers to worker entrepreneurship and upward mobility in an increasingly competitive world economy.

Furthermore, a wide range of legal protections and social benefits render obsolete the union caricature of the helpless worker. Arguably, some of those protections and benefits have produced economic problems of their own, but they include unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, civil rights and wrongful discharge laws, and expanded opportunities for education and re-training.

The experience of the last state to approve right-to-work- Idaho in 1986--may be especially instructive. To defeat the measure in a statewide referendum, unions spent a fortune in an unsuccessful effort to convince Idahoans that right-to-work would mean lower wages, higher unemployment, and a stagnant economy. One statistic that argued powerfully to the contrary was this one: the 20 states which had right-to-work between 1975 and 1985 created a whopping 92 percent of the nation's new manufacturing jobs-more than 10 times as many as were created in the other 30 states. Also, Idaho's right-to-work competitors had less unemployment and in some cases, even higher hourly wages.

Since right-to-work passed in 1986, the Idaho economy has gone from being the laggard among western states to being the nation's fastest growing. In every year since 1986, per capita income has risen at rates well above the national average. New business start-ups are breaking records, and business failures are sharply down. In 1989, Idaho's Commerce Department director-an appointee of the state's Democratic governor-said that gains like these would probably not have happened without right-to-work.

After an estimated one-quarter to one-third of Idaho's unionized workers quit their unions when freed to do so, the law led to a more accountable union leadership. As the Idaho State Journal editorialized, "Strong unions with responsible leadership need not fear right-to-work; indeed, the voluntary aspect of membership makes leadership work harder. Those labor unions which buck right-to-work the hardest may be those with the least support to begin with." This is a case where the exercise of a worker's basic right to freedom of association produces a harmonious outcome for everybody.

Right-to-work is not anti-union and it does not lower overall wages. It is pro-choice on the issue of union membership. It can lead to greater productivity and higher wages by reducing costly and inefficient union work rules. It encourages investment in new jobs and invigorates the economy with new incentives for entrepreneurship.

The Engler administration is considering dubious "economic development" programs that involve state subsidies and selective tax breaks to help reduce the high cost of doing business in Michigan. Improving the business and job-creation climate by enacting right-to-work would make better sense-and it doesn't require a dime of taxpayer money.

Labor reform that brings Michigan law up to date with the times is not something to be feared. The ho-hum response to "the sky is falling" ploy of union leadership suggests the public understands that. Now, let's put the scare-talk and the superficial thinking aside and give right-to-work the serious and studied consideration the people of this state deserve.