The grinning man sporting a denim work apron and safety glasses leans his right arm familiarly against a drill press, the epitome of the happy, productive worker that businessman dream about. Below this photo is the message:

"Virginia Is Not Only a Right-to-Work State,

It's a Want-to-Work State."

The ad, part of a $450,000-a-year, state-funded campaign designed to entice new companies to Virginia, goes on to boast that only nine states have a lower percentage of unionized workers and that the state's rate of strike-caused work stoppages is a third below the national average.

The centerpiece of the provocative -- some say unionbaiting -- campaign is Virginia's right-to-work law, which is the state's chief salesman, Gov. John N. Dalton, calls "the single most beneficial statute in bringing in new industry to the state." If so, it is effective bait, having helped lure an annual average of more than 100 companies and 9,000 jobs in recent years.

In Virginia, right-to-work is more than just a law that prohibits mandatory membership in labor unions. To some workers, it is a weapon that business has used over the years to keep unions small, weak and disorganized. One result according to critics: hourly industrial wages in Virginia rank 17 percent below the national average -- a fact that the state boasts about in its business-oriented brochures.

For Virginia politicians, the law, enacted in 1947 after an abortive strike by utility workers, has become an altar at which they must worship if they are to have a chance at winning statewide office.

"Right-to-work has become one of the most overreaching symbols of Viringia's conservatism," says Univeristy of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "And while most people don't understand the issues involved, through the generations they have been told by their leaders that right-to-work is one of the pillars of Virginia society and they accept it."

Right-to-work supporters like to portray the 33-year-old law as a boon to workers that protects them from being forced to join labor unions. "It's the best law for workers that Virginia ever passed," says Charles Stebbins, the state Chamber of Commerce's union expert.

But the state's own advertising campaign tells a different story. In a multicolor, 28-page booklet targeted at overseas investors, the state Division of Industrial Development notes that Virginia's production workers in 1978 averaged $5.11 an hour, compared to $6.17 nationally.

Another brochure, aimed at the printing industry, compares wages for 100 workers in hypothetical printing plants in Virginia and nonright-to-work Maryland and New York. In Fredericksburg, Va., the brochure boasts, workers would average $12,664 a year, compared to $15,548 in Baltimore and $17,491 in New York City.

"The point is that right-to-work laws are synonymous with low salary structures," says Frank Emig, the AFL-CIO's right-to-work specialist.

The law's supporters here argue that when incomes are adjusted for taxes and the cost of living, Virginia workers actually rank higher than the national average. They also note that the state's unemployment rate averages about 15 percent below the national rate. While Virginia gained about 45,000 manufacturing jobs between 1968 and 1978, Maryland and the District of Columbia lost nearly the same number.

"Those jobs might not be here without the business climate that right-to-work helps create," argues Hugh Keogh, state industrial development spokesman.

Right-to-work is not just a Virginia issue. Twenty states have similar laws on their books and the Republican Party's 1980 platform endorses the right of states to enact such laws -- a fact that may cause Ronald Reagan some discomfort as he seeks support from rank-and-file union members for his presidential bid this year.

Of the 20, Virginia lies closest to the markets of the Northeast -- as Dalton likes to emphasize. Although state officials concede that energy and land costs, transportation facilities, labor availability and state and local taxes all play a role in corporate relocation decisions, they believe right-to-work can be an important psychological factor -- especially for companies with a history of labor troubles.

"It attracts what I call the 'run-aways' -- companies that are tired of headaches," says the Chamber of Commerce's Stebbins. Adds T. Rodman Layman, a Dalton spokesman at a recent debate on the law: "If the law is important to executives considering a possible home for their industries, it is important because it represents a symbol, an indication of political commitment. . . ."

If the debate over the law is complex, the heart of Virginia's right-to-work statute itself is not. "It is hereby declared to be the public policy of Virginia that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of memberhsip or nonmembership in any labor unions or labor organization," the law says.

It goes on to outlaw any agreement between employers and unions making union membership a condition of employment and makes violation of the law a misdemeanor. Officials of the state Labor and Industry Department say they have received only 15 complaints of right-to-work violations during the last three years, all of which were settled without prosecution. One complaint received statewide attention when Dalton used it as a rationale for sending more than 200 state troopers to a Newport News shipyard to allow nonstrikers to pass through picket lines during a strike.

The law was one of a series of antiunion measures passed by an irate General Assembly in a special 1947 session in reaction to threats of strikes in Virginia's coal mines and power plants. The state's two-fisted conservative governor, William Tuck, who had threatened to draft all of Virginia Electric and Power Co.'s workers into the state militia to thwart a walkout there, invoked images of "ruthless, racketeering labor czars" in persuading the lawmakers to act.

The result has been a state labor movement with little or no political muscle. Political scientist Sabato points to federal statistics putting total union strength at the polls in Virginia at 311,000 -- just 8.1 percent of the state's voting population -- ranking Virginia the eighth lowest in the nation.

The impact can be seen on election day. Unlike in most states, few if any candidates for office in Virginia ever acknowledge, let alone boast of, union support. Of 183 candidates for the state legislature who answered a survey last year, only one said he favored weakening or repeal of the right-to-work law -- and he lost.

The one statewide candidate who had been closely identified with labor unions, Norfolk populist Henry Howell, lost three successive campaigns for governor in part because opponents succeeded in branding him a tool of labor bosses. In his last two campaigns, Howell tried to duck the right-to-work issue by pointing out that the state AFL-CIO had pledged not to push for its repeal. But he concedes his refusal to declare fealty to right-to-work cost him dearly.

"The political effect [of right-to-work] is devastating," says Howell. "It sets fires under the powers that be and it can cause the defeat of anyone who advocates repeal."

But success has not made state right-to-work advocates complacent. If anything, they are pushing harder, fearful that the new union drives may undermine enforcement of the law. According to state Chamber of Commerce statistics, unions have won 54 percent of organizing elections so far this year compared to just 34 percent in 1979.

Chamber officials are even more troubled by employers who agree to hire only union help in order to avoid labor unrest. Such agreements are supposedly illegal in Virginia but are increasingly common, according to the chamber's Stebbins, especially among large chain stores that have national contracts with major retail unions.

To combat the trend, the chamber supported legislation at this year's General Assembly session to require employers to post the right-to-work law where workers can see it. Curiously enough, a committee of the usually probusiness state Sentate killed the bill by a 10-to-5 vote.

"It was just another effort by the right-to-work people to justify their existence," says Norfolk Sen. Peter K. Babalas who led the fight to kill the bill.

Stebbins concedes he is concered about even the slightest breach in the state's attitude toward labor unions and right-to-work. That is why he and other business leaders protested vehemently recently about the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, a nonprofit group that has received about $85,000 in state funds, helped co-sponsor with the AFL-CIO a debate on right-to-work.

"It happens to be an emotional issue in this state," says Stebbins.

But as long as businessmen favor right-to-work, it is highly unlikely state officials will do anything to undermine the law. For as another state-produced advertisement notes: "One of the original functions of government was to be a friend of business. Virginia's government still is."