Clashes between business and organized labor usually involve disputes over wages, benefits, working conditions or all three. But in Maryland, these traditional antagonists are heading for a confrontation over a not-too-subtle form of political intimidation.

The first salvo was fired in April by a group of Maryland business executives in what might be called a big PAC attack. The group, which organized three years ago as Maryland Business for Responsive Government (MBRG), is the driving force behind an effort to expand political action committees at companies throughout the state.

Then, MBRG inaugurated a controversial program in mid-April "to increase legislative support for issues related to business and jobs." This so-called economic education program was undertaken, according to MBRG, on "behalf of the state's economy."

MBRG's economic education program has the appearance, nonetheless, of an attempt to influence, if not intimidate, members of the General Assembly to support business' position on key legislative matters.

In a move to "focus its efforts directly" on Maryland state legislators and candidates for the legislature, MBRG has developed a scorecard incorporating the voting records of General Assembly members on issues critical to business. The scorecard, showing how legislators voted on 10 bills in the Senate and 14 in the House during the past two or three years, is really MBRG's evaluation of legislators.

Issues selected for the evaluation are "related to MBRG's objective of fostering an environment for successful enterprise," the organization explained.

But the MBRG evaluation strongly suggests that a powerful antibusiness environment exists in the General Assembly, and possibly the state. Fully 106 of what MBRG describes as "Maryland's 188 most important voters" scored 50 percent or lower, based on MBRG's assessment of their votes on issues supported by business.

One bill considered by MBRG to be critical to the conduct of business and important to the state's economy would have limited the amounts candidates could receive from all PACs, business or otherwise.

"Now that we can identify these people with confidence in our judgments, we plan to respond accordingly," MBRG declared in a statement of its mission and purpose.

That has to be interpreted as a carefully veiled threat to target for defeat those legislators who don't cast the "right" vote in support of MBRG's positions -- an even greater threat to the business climate in the state.

Not so, according to Robert O. C. Worcester, executive director of MBRG. The organization believes its action is a "civic duty" that's been neglected, he says. Business has a responsibility to let the public know what the economic issues are affecting the state, he continues.

Opposition to its position notwithstanding, MBRG is "confident that, when the next legislature goes to Annapolis . . . they will be much more thoughtful in considering what are the issues affecting this state, and that can't be all bad," Worcester says.

Nonetheless, MBRG "put out a hit list on 106 legislators," insists Edward Lamon, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO. "We don't want our money to come back and be used against legislators that are pro-worker and pro-consumer. When they put out a hit list, we have to respond."

The executive board of the state's AFL-CIO has responded by calling for a boycott of MBRG's 17 members. At the same time, the board has asked the five MBRG-member banks to break with the organization or face massive withdrawal of operating and pension funds that the AFL-CIO and locals have on deposit at those institutions. Moreover, the AFL-CIO has withdrawn, in protest, from a statewide labor-management group that had been formed to address issues of importance to Maryland's economy.

To suggest that the General Assembly's voting record on selective bills reflects an antibusiness posture misrepresents the legislative body's record in dealing with major business issues over the years. Maryland's banking industry, for example, usually prevailed in key matters before the General Assembly, until the tide of interstate banking eroded its power.

The savings and loan crisis in Maryland might never have developed if the General Assembly had taken a tougher stance on regulating state-chartered thrifts. Indeed, at the height of the S&L crisis, many legislators still were reluctant to enact tough regulations for the industry.

In the meantime, this public bashing of legislators for trying to balance the interests of business with those of their constituents sends a disturbing message to businesses that might be considering a move to Maryland. Publication of a list that implies there is an antibusiness sentiment in the General Assembly is self-defeating if MBRG really wants to foster an environment for successful enterprise in the state.