By his account, David H. Laws, the jowly, slow-talking new president of Virginia's AFL-CIO, favors a subdued approach to the labor movement.

Ask Laws why he wanted the $36,100-a-year job, and he says he has no "pat answer." Ask about labor's agenda in Virginia, and Laws acknowledges he has not yet formulated one.

"I might not scream and holler, as some folks might want me to do," said the 50-year-old Manassas resident, who took the reins of Virginia's largest labor organization on Oct. 1.

But in Virginia, where labor historically has been weak and where the movement's current political standing is low, screaming and hollering is exactly what some of Laws' colleagues would prescribe.

"Somebody has got to be out in the forefront, leading the charge," said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the AFL-CIO's Metropolitan Washington Council and a longtime political rival of Laws. "You must create the environment for change, even if it means going against the wind . . . . My perception is that Dave Laws will go along."

Labor in the state is "climbing up the mountain and, obviously, they're not at the top," said Ira M. Lechner of Arlington, an attorney for Local 400 of the United Food & Commercial Workers and an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress two years ago in the 10th District. "And that's the way it's always been in Virginia."

Laws was elected without opposition to succeed Julian F. Carper, who led the 108,000-member state labor federation for 18 years. Carper's low-key style was criticized as weak and acquiescent by some in the labor movement. Although opinions differ, some say Laws, who served for two years as secretary-treasurer under Carper, is cut from the same cloth.

"There will be no clear and clean break with the past under David," said Lechner. "David is not going to do any violence to Julian's agenda or his style. He's obviously not a confrontational guy."

Others suggest that Laws, who held a variety of positions in the United Food & Commercial Workers, the AFL-CIO's largest union, will bring a more activist style to the job of chief labor lobbyist in the state.

"Dave seems somewhat more forceful and aggressive than Carper ," said Democratic state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. of Fairfax. "That may be a reflection of a difference in their tactical approaches."

Former lieutenant governor Henry E. Howell Jr. of Norfolk, who drew heavily on labor support in his three losing gubernatorial campaigns, also said he expects Laws to be more of an activist than Carper "because of his roots in retail unions and in Northern Virginia."

Laws' task, politicians and labor leaders agree, is to find a role for labor in Virginia, where polls show President Reagan with a large lead, despite the AFL-CIO's strong support for Walter F. Mondale. The task is made more difficult, they say, because of Virginia's so-called right-to-work law, which undermines labor's clout by prohibiting obligatory union membership. State legislators say there is no prospect that the right-to-work law will be repealed any time soon.

Laws agrees labor must accept the law "until we're prepared to put in $7 million or $8 million for a right-to-work fight to repeal it . . . . I guess we kind of have to go along with it."

Moreover, the Virginia AFL-CIO suffered a major setback this summer when Marval Poultry, a major producer of turkeys in the Shenandoah Valley, weathered a strike by 500 workers over working conditions, wages and a company demand that union rules be changed to make it easier for workers to quit the union.

Despite the hard times, Laws insists that labor still packs a political punch in the state.

Comparisons, however, tend to speak poorly of the Virginia AFL-CIO. For example, in Indiana, a relatively conservative state with a population about the same as Virginia's, organized labor has nearly twice as many members.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage of production workers in Virginia's manufacturing sector in 1982 was $282.62, compared with the national average of $330.65.

Sporting a Mondale-Ferraro button and a Virginia AFL-CIO pin on his lapel, Laws described himself in a recent interview as a pragmatist. "Times are not easy, no question," he said.

"I don't have high hopes for Dave Laws," said James M. Thomas Jr., president of District-based Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents 1,200 Metro workers who live in Virginia. "You've got to lead from the trenches and get out there with the people who are labor. You've got to go to the grass roots and organize. You've got to get with the real Democrats, and not with the Dixiecrats, and make them understand that they work for the same cause as labor."

"In Virginia, we look in the other direction," said Williams.

Laws bristles at suggestions that he is too complacent to move labor in Virginia into a more powerful position. "Perhaps if Williams has got the magic answers on how we're going to turn this state around, I'd certainly welcome sharing some of his ideas and philosophy," he said. "I think I've been in this game long enough to understand some realities. I don't put myself out as an idealist."

While Williams insists that the AFL-CIO ought to take the lead in organizing workers around the state, Laws speaks of the obstacles facing organizers.

"How are you going to talk to these nonunion employes when they're scared to death of losing their jobs," he said. "Don't even go start talking about organizing; some of these people get the impression that as soon as they start rocking the boat to make their lives a little better, they're going to get dumped."

One point of contention between Laws and his rivals is whether labor should endorse political candidates who support right-to-work legislation. In other states, the right-to-work issue is a litmus test for the AFL-CIO, much as gun control is for the National Rifle Association.

Not so in Virginia, where labor regularly endorses right-to-work candidates. "Practical, pragmatic politics in this state dictated it," said Laws. "There's no easy answer to it."

"We mustn't use different standards for different states," countered Williams. "Here in the District of Columbia , a politician who supports right-to-work will not get our support. But across the river, a person who lives in Alexandria or Arlington or Fairfax can say the same thing and get our blessing. I think it's a mistake."

The dispute underscores what union leaders say is a fundamental philosophical difference -- as well as a personality clash -- between Laws and Williams over which approach the AFL-CIO should take in Virginia to regain credibility as a viable political force.

Laws and Williams also are locked in a battle over which labor group -- the Metropolitan Washington Council or the Virginia AFL-CIO -- has jurisdiction over affiliated unions in Northern Virginia's 8th and 10th congressional districts. Labor leaders acknowledge that the dissent comes at a time they can least afford it.

The Washington council is currently in control of the suburban area, but it has recently drawn the fire of some locals who charge that they are ineffectively represented. The locals are seeking to form their own council or to join the Virginia AFL-CIO.

Labor officials acknowledge that the struggle has weakened labor's muscle in Virginia and is likely to make labor's task there more difficult.

Laws' prognosis for labor is not bright. He says that many union members will vote for Reagan, in spite of organized labor's opposition. "I guess a lot of our people don't react until they get hurt personally," he said. "They have to get knocked down and dragged around before they stand up and say, 'Enough's enough.' It's unfortunate it has to be that way. That's how the people learn sometime, right?"

Laws paused, groping for a new thought.

"It's not an easy time," he said.