The 650 folks who make synthetic rubber for Firestone Tire & Rubber at the plant in Orange, Tex., where forests of chemical towers have supplanted the flatland scrub, are long on white males and short on other types.

To put it more precisely, the work force falls short of federal standards by at least nine-tenths of a woman chemical engineer, five and five-tenths minority foremen and two-tenths of a minority craftsman.

U.S. Labor Department officials last year decided that they had to take action against Firestone to fulfill their mandate to enforce affirmative action regulations. Firestones and others critics of the program see this as a classic example of business being "nitpicked" to death by the federal regulators.

It seems to boil down to a question, not of any charges of actual discrimination at the plant, but of small numbers and fractions of people.

The case, may or may not become, as some have predicted, a precedent-setter, culminating in a historic Supreme Court decision that could determine the constitutionality of affirmative action.

But the case does provide a perspective on the Chinese puzzle of affirmative action as the Reagan administration and Congress consider major changes to reduce what they see as its costly and sometimes pointless burdens on employers.

At the center of all this is the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which monitors and enforces job bias regulations among employers working under contract to the federal government.

During the Carter years, it shed a "paper tiger" image and has come to be viewed by many civil rights activists as the most valuable of the government's affirmative action agencies. Its clout extends to about 350,000 employers with a work force approaching 40 million.

Some of the compliance office's pending cases seem to illustrate clearly enough the sins of employers in fostering various forms of job bias. But various forms ofjob bias. But some people see the Firestone case as a good example of the opposite problem -- the excesses of the government regulators.

When Firestone balked at doing what Labor wanted about those numbers at the Orange plant, President Carter's labor secretary, Ray Marshall, reversed the decision of an administrative law judge and used his most potent weapon.

He barred the company, the nation's second largest rubber maker, from doing any more business with the government until it complies. If the courts ultimately agree, that would apply to an estimated $40 million worth of direct government contracts with the company as a whole, although the Orange plant itself held no such contract.

It was to the government's apparent surprise that Firestone decided to spend the money required to fight in court. Parties on all sides agreed that the easy thing, the cheap thing, would have been for Firestone to do what the government ordered it to do.

A District Court judge in Texas recently handed Firestone at least a temporary victory and sent the case back to the Labor Department, where Marshall has been replaced by President Reagan's man, Raymond J. Donovan. m

But even the philosophically conservative Donovan is going to press the government's case and let the issue be decided in the courts -- even though he disgrees with what he calls the "push-pull-slap-punch" approach.

In the Firestone case, the government did not charge that the company has discriminated at the Orange plant. Nor do the federal rules require that the plant managers go out and immediately hire the specified women, blacks, Hispanics or fractions thereof.

What the government required Firestone to do was, in the jargon of the regulators, to "declare underutilization," and then establish goals and timetables and "create adequate action-oriented programs to correct problem areas" in various job groups.

"At every other facility that Firestone has, they are currently in basic compliance with [this office's] regulations," Louis Ferrand, attorney for the Labor Department, said before the latest court decision was handed down. "Your hear people say the government is just picking on Firestone, but -- I know this sounds kind of funny -- it's almost like Firestone is picking on the federal government" in fighting the case.

The government would not have acted against Firestone for a mere technical violation, he said. Although there was no charge of discrimination against Firestone, there had been problem in the past and now, even in spots where they had agreed they had "underutilized, they didn't do anything about it. That's the key as far as I'm concerned," Ferrand said.

Labor Department attorneys who worked on the case have declined comment since it landed back on the desk of the secretary.

Firestone officials insist they are not fighting affirmative action as a concept -- only the government's insistence on "artifically precise and rigid employment quotas" to achieve and maintain an exact racial and sexual balance. The Orange plant's work force of 650 includes about 25 percent women and minorities, they note.

Of the deficiencies decribed by federal investigators, not all were measured in such small numbers and fractions of people as those mentioned above. Firestone did agree to "declare underutillization," for example, in a group found to be short by 30 black employes, attorney Daniel Karnes, representing Firestone, said. "But Firestone's hands were tied in that case by a labor agreement which called for those positions to be filled by seniority."

The precise fractions cited earlier are the result of the regulators' refinement of the idea at the heart of the federal program: It is not enough merely to stop discrimination; employers should also act to redress current and continuing inequalities based on past injustice.

It is a simple idea. But the details have become something else. On a case like Firestone, for example, the parties don't seem even to agree on exactly what the case is about.

"There is a lot of obfuscation, it's true," said one compliance office source. "That's why the lawyers [in the field] are doing so well. Their business is booming."

If there had been no discrimination in the first place, the government regulators reasoned, the employes in any given group would have the same proportions of women, blacks, Hispanics and so forth as exists in the larger community -- that is, the pool of job seekers from which they were drawn.

The regulations therefore required employers to divide their work force into job categories and then do what is called a "utilization analysis."

This involves a study of the local labor market that addresses eight "availability factors," such as the proportion of minorities and women in the total population and those with a certain kind of degree. All this is boiled down to specific percentages according to a formula.

The employer then compares these figures with the current balance of employes in his various job categories and where they don't match up he must declare that he is underutilizing. Firestone argued that even in a world without discrimination "the odds of achieving an exact balance are astronomical."

Ferrand and others counter that Firestone is simply trying to "introduce a new methodology," different from the government's, and eliminate very small job groups -- those too small for discrimination to show up as statistically significant -- as targets for the enforcers.

Donna Lenhoff of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, says however, that "fractions -- or more precisely just one or two people -- become more important at higher job levels, where there are fewer -- become more important at higher job levels, where there are fewer people."

Firestone objects to the government's requirement of "goals and timetables" -- insisting they are quotas based on race or gender, which encourages a form of "reverse discrimination."

All sides seem to agree that at the least the paper work could be reduced and that a better formula ought to be found for determining how far short of the desired mix of people the employer has fallen.

"If we can make the approach more precise, with less arbitrariness -- fine," said Barry Goldstein of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He said he would also favor a "more rational system for targeting. . . . Why not go after the worst company in a given area."

But, he noted, it was private industry that asked for numerical standards in the first place. Private employers "are used to operating and dying by the numbers," he said. "Using numbers is the only way to measure progress or set a goal."