Sweeping some 45-year-old regulations off the books, the U.S. Labor Department says people may now manufacture gloves, mittens, buckles, buttons, embroidery, handerchiefs, and jewelry in their homes.

That may not be the last word on the subject, however. Labor unions threaten to go to court to get the department's order overturned. And Congress, which frequently takes cues from union bosses, may get into the act.At issue are prohibitions imposed in the early 1940s by the department after studies showed that employers sometimes farmed out work to people in the home to avoid minimum wage and child labor laws.

Although there is little evidence that employers are using homework to get around labor laws today, union officials nevertheless continue to oppose the practice. They still complain about "sweatshops," underpaid workers, unsafe conditions, and working children.

Unions fear that relaxing the rules against buttons-and-bows homework will lead to a great proliferation of home-based labor in other areas, such as clerical and other tasks made possible by computers.

Does union opposition stem more from a desire to protect labor unions themselves than from a genuine interest in the welfare of those engaged in homework? It's much easier to organize workers and maintain union discipline at the factory or office than in the home.

Working at home can have major advantages. It allows mothers, for example, to stay with their children. It makes it easier for the handicapped and elderly to earn income without the problems and costs associated with going to a work place.

The Labor Department's nod toward "free enterprise" should be welcomed, not condemned.