AFTER CLUMSILY pouring cold water all over his collective bargaining table, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has his hands full of labor disputes that could cause a serious government breakdown in less than two weeks. Only a postponement order issued this week by a board of outside mediators stood between Mr. Hogan and a strike by 1,500 county employees, including jail guards, clerical workers, landfill operators and other members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- most of whom are among the lowest paid in the county government.

The situation is unusual because there once was an agreement that would have avoided this mess -- but Mr. Hogan undercut his own negotiators and repudiated the contract proposals that both sides had initialed. Whatever the county executive though he was accomplishing -- and he has yet to make it clear -- his unorthodox bargaining behavior has created still more problems: other employees, including the police, firefighters and school personnel, are now serving notice that they intend to honor any job action taken by the affected employees.

In the meantime, bargaining representatives as well as mediators are scrambling blindly for some new resolution before a revised deadline of March 24. They are only too aware of the fact that, unlike other jurisdictions' restrictions, Prince George's labor code grants public employees the right to strike. Given the history of these negotiations, such a breakdown is as unnecessary as it would be disruptive. Mr. Hogan should take another look at the work of his negotiators and do everything possible to set things straight before the situation degenerates any further.