The scattered ranks of home-based business operators are forming up to battle an apparent attack on homework by unions. Homework in the outerwear and women's apparel industries has been illegal since the early 1940s, when an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was passed. The Act was written to outlaw sweatshops -- illegal factories, sometimes based in homes, that employed nonunion workers unprotected by minimum-wage and child-labor laws. According to Marion Behr, founder and past-president of the over-1,000-member National Alliance of Home-Based Businesswomen, now the union's zeal for government protection threatens all homework, including home-based proprietorships.

"The law makes a distinction between working at home as an employee versus working at home as an independent subcontractor," explains Charles Carroll, aide to Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who is working to get the legislation through the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. "But the difference is blurred. The Labor Department, spurred on by the unions, is busting these [sub-contractors] all over the map."

The most widely publicized "bust" occurred in Vermont last December, where more than 300 home-based knitters who subcontracted to retailers were ordered out of business by the federal government. Lee Bellinger, director of public affairs for the Center on National Labor Policy, claims that now the unions are also pressuring home-based business through, for example, local zoning laws. Last year in Chicago a husband-and-wife freelance writing team, who worked on personal computers in their den, were ordered to close up shop because local zoning laws forbid the use of machinery in the home for commercial purposes.

Advocates of home-based work claim that unions fear this emerging trend because they cannot organize and collect dues from these maverick workers, but union leaders say they are just worried about labor abuses. "The biggest concern," says Max Zimny, general counsel for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, "is the violation of the wage and hour laws. The problem with homework in the apparel industry is that inherent in it are gross violations. If we can't find out where the work is done, we can't enforce the laws."

Whatever the reasons for union concern, the fact remains that the AFL-CIO has called for a ban on computer homework, and the Service Employees International Union has passed a resolution opposing computer work by their members outside of corporate offices. To halt this union drive, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act late last year to legalize industrial work in the home, including the previously excluded apparel industry. "The Hatch bill won't allow 40 workers to operate out of one home," says Carroll. "We realize that's a sweatshop. But homework is the wave of the future. Still, the union can win this fight by simply blocking new legislation. With their consistent pressure, we may not be able to get [the Hatch amendment] out of committee."