ANNAPOLIS, JAN. 22 -- The administration of Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer is preparing legislation that would give businesses the power to seek immediate court orders to halt or limit picketing in labor disputes, a move that could set off a major battle in the General Assembly.

Administration officials said they view such legislation as a tool to prevent violence and property damage and to foster economic development. But they acknowledged that it is a potentially emotional issue that might be abandoned if it threatens to do more harm than good to the business climate by straining labor-management relations.

The 52-member executive board of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, which learned of the proposed legislation today, voted unanimously to oppose the bill if the Schaefer administration goes ahead with its plan to introduce it.

"This could be the most divisive labor-management issue we've had in five or six years," said Sen. John N. Bambacus (R-Allegany). It would set off, he said "absolute labor-management war."

The proposed change in a 1935 state law would make it a far easier and faster process for a company to obtain a court order to ban or limit picketing because of the threat of violence. Currently, Maryland judges can issue such orders against picketing only after an open hearing in court and usually after giving pickets 48 hours' notice.

The change would allow state courts, at a company's request, to temporarily ban or limit picketing -- without a court hearing and without notice to a striking union. Companies could obtain such injunctions by presenting a judge with evidence of the immediate danger of violence or a threat of property damage.

Labor lawyers and union officials regard the proposed change as a major step backward from the prolabor Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, which was the model for Maryland's current law. Those laws were passed in reaction to a decade of antiunion rulings by federal and state courts, which frequently banned picketing at company request, effectively killing major strikes.

The current law specifically notes that the ability to obtain a court order without notice and a hearing is "peculiarly subject to abuse."

In many major strikes, when picketers attempt to shut down their employers, companies that can demonstrate union-related violence often obtain orders to limit the numbers of picketers or confine picketing to certain areas.

The new legislation is being backed by the state Chamber of Commerce and a number of businesses, including the Westvaco paper corporation in Allegany County, which last year, with the strong endorsement of the Schaefer administration, embarked on a $200 million expansion and modernization. Westvaco had a strike in 1978 in which company officials alleged their equipment was threatened by pickets at the paper mill.

"Unions can still strike and picket," said Christopher B. Costello of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "This is strictly going to address those activities that violate the law."

In support of the bill, Costello said that the change also would allow unions to seek immediate injunctions against company security guards who threaten violence.

Similar legislation has been introduced, but defeated, numerous times in Annapolis, but union officials said they do not recall its ever having the backing of a governor.

Schaefer has established economic development as the top priority of his administration, giving particular emphasis to economically depressed western Maryland. Schaefer press spokesman Bob Douglas said late today that the staff of the Department of Economic and Employment Development is "leaning" in favor of going forward with the bill -- but Schaefer has not yet approved the idea.

The administration proposal, if enacted, "would be a sea-change in public policy," said William W. Thompson II, a labor lawyer who represents several unions, including Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest union in the Washington area.

"It has been for decades the policy of the State of Maryland, as many states, not to get involved in strikes, not to have the courts interfering and barreling into an ongoing labor-management conflict," Thompson said.

"This thing is an open assault on the rights of working people and the ability of unions to function," said Charles H. Rush, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council.

He and other union officials said violence on picket lines has not been a problem in Maryland. Business leaders want the law changed, they said, in order to break strikes and cripple unions.

"It's not probusiness legislation at all," said Rush. "It's antiunion and antiworker."

AFL-CIO President Edward Lamon said union officials believe Schaefer made a commitment to Westvaco to back the legislation, but neither administration nor Westvaco officials could confirm whether that was true.

"The governor has had discussions with Westvaco management," said Dave Young, Westvaco's manager of personnel and industrial relations. But, he said, Westvaco's interest in the bill "has nothing to do with the expansion program here."

Costello of the Chamber of Commerce said he wrote to the AFL-CIO to request a meeting with union officials to discuss the issue in hopes of reaching a compromise both sides can live with. "We certainly don't want to pursue this legislation if it's going to be a difficult fight," said Costello. "I suspect if labor decides they're going to the wall on this, that it won't pass."