THE International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) has declared war. Its opponent is the US Department of Labor, which recently proposed a rules change that, says union president Jay Mazur, ``gives the green light to the thousands of sweatshop operators throughout this country who exploit our most vulnerable workers.'' How is the Reagan administration supposedly returning the United States to the manufacturing dark ages? By allowing people to work in their homes if they choose.
In 1943 the federal government banned ``industrial homework'' for seven products: knitted outerwear, gloves, women's apparel, buttons and buckles, jewelry, embroidery, and handkerchiefs. The restriction, the department said, was intended to help enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act; but the regulations were adopted largely to reduce competition with unionized companies and make it easier for the union to organize.
In succeeding years the Labor Department has busily enforced the rules. In 1979, for instance, the government cited several Vermont companies that purchased sweaters and outerwear knitted at home; roughly 1,000 people, many of them retirees working to supplement social security, lost their livelihood.
The newly elected Reagan administration moved to lift the home-knitting ban. After a three-year court battle people gained the right to knit at home, but the six other trades remained outside the law.
So earlier this year the department began arresting employers in North Carolina; the government shut down the Tom Thumb Glove Company, for instance, putting 85 people out of work. The administration finally decided to exempt all home workers as long as the employer filed with the Labor Department and paid the minimum wage. The final rule may yet be changed and faces a likely court challenge from the union; nevertheless, people should soon be free to work at home if they desire.
This reform is long overdue. For too long the government has sacrificed jobs for ILGWU's selfish economic interests. Mr. Mazur may say he cares about the ``most vulnerable workers,'' but his real concern is his members, who fear home-based competition. The union just wants to keep people out of work to jack up its members' wages.
The growth of homework has created important new employment opportunities, allowing people to design the work environment that best meets their individual needs: women seeking to combine motherhood with a job, the disabled who can't commute, and anyone who prefers to set his own schedule. Indeed, homework is uniquely an employee's choice, so it is not surprising that the workers supposedly being exploited don't want the government's ``protection.''
The union campaign against homework strikes hardest at those who have the fewest job options outside the home. Said retiree Virginia Gray when the Labor Department stopped her from knitting, ``Tell them to do their work down in Washington and leave us alone. Our knitting's our living.''
The homework ban has ominous implications as telecommuting -- using a computer and telephone to link a work station with an office -- becomes more popular. There may be as many as 1 million telecommuters today, and the Center for Futures Research at the University of Southern California expects that number to hit 5 million within a decade.
But organized labor is, if anything, more frightened of the ``electronic cottage'' than of home knitters. The Service Employees International Union, National Organization of Working Women, and AFL-CIO have all called for bans on computer homework. Said ILGWU past president Sol Chaikin, ``We cannot afford to wait for a new history of exploitation, wage and hour violations, child abuse, and loss of office and factory jobs.'' But no labor leader has yet presented any evidence of mistreated telecommuters.
The question of homework comes down to personal freedom. Why should the federal government prescribe where people can and cannot work? What right does a bureaucracy have to set the proper life style for employees?
When the home knitters were fighting for their right to work, Max Zimny, the union's general counsel, said the women ``should find some other way to occupy themselves.'' But it is Mr. Zimny and his colleagues who should be doing something, anything else, rather than trying to keep people unemployed. It's time the federal government left the home workers alone and treated this country as if it really were the ``land of the free.''
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, served as a special assistant to President Reagan.