GEORGE MEANY is right in saying that Communist trade unionists are government stooges. His pride in the "free," i.e., nongovernmental, status of American unionists is well earned. But he's not the Secretary of State. It's wrong for him to use the AFL-CIO's muscle to force a too-long-pliant State Department to deny entry visas to these Soviet functionaries. Mr. Meany did just that a few days ago, not for the first time, to prevent three Russians from attending the farewell convention of retiring longshoremen's leader Harry Bridges. The Bridges union, needless to say, is not a part of the AFL-CIO.

To give Mr. Meany the best of it, he evidently believes a visa is a laurel conferring respectability. But for a country like the United States, supposedly committed to the free exchange of ideas, goods and people, a visa simply certifies that the person being admitted has acted within the law. The United States accepted a fresh commitment to free travel at the Helsinki conference in 1975. If it continues to restrict foreigners' travel arbitrarily, it will suffer embarrassment at the Belgrade follow-up conference starting in June, and it will be less able to press legitmate objections to the human-rights violations of other countries, including Russia.

President Carter has many fish to fry with Mr. Meany. Politically it can't be easy for the administration to take him on again. But if it's serious it will. First, the State Department must alter its policy and stop denying visas on political grounds alone. Then, the administration must move to amend the law that gives the department its present denial authority.

We would not want to see all restrictions on foreigners' entry removed, however. Specifically, to ensure that Americans who so desire are admitted to the Soviet Union and like countries, the United States must be able to hold up the entry of their citizens. Otherwise, as sad experience demonstrates, the Russians will cheat. Of the need for hard bargaining with the Russians to obtain equal treatment in this matter as in others, Mr. Meany, we are sure, would approve.