Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) seemed to be poking at a hornet's nest when he ordered a news release announcing a Senate Labor Committee investigation of "subversives" in the United Mine Workers just three days before the union was to elect its president.

For one thing, the senator's charges closely resembled those leveled by supporters of then-UMW President Sam Church against Pennsylvania lawyer Richard Trumka, the challenger who went on to trounce Church in the miners' Nov. 9 vote.

Sure enough, Hatch's action set some people to buzzing that he had tried, with a resounding lack of success, to influence the election. Beyond that, officials who ought to know about such things expressed bewilderment about what he had in mind, and Hatch's critics got a chance to indulge in sarcastic comments about "Red-baiting" and "the return of Joe McCarthy."

Since that initial burst of hype four days after his reelection in Utah, however, Hatch has refused to comment on who or what motivated his use of the congressional power of inquiry.

Hatch spokesman Ed Darrell, the aide who wrote the release at the senator's request, now says that Hatch "didn't realize that this was such a hot issue in the UMW election." The timing has given the inquiry a "bizarre twist," he acknowledged. Darrell emphasized that the Labor Committee has no evidence of a link between Trumka and the "disruptive elements."

The investigation, to be carried out by the staff of the committee that Hatch chairs, is focusing on the Teamsters and the United Steelworkers unions along with the UMW, the Nov. 6 statement said. "Preliminary information obtained by the committee indicated that outside groups dedicated to overthrow of the United States government have sought to disrupt the internal affairs of these unions," it said.

It added, "The ultimate aim of these groups may be the physical sabotage of plants and equipment of key American industries and adoption of union policies that would run counter to the interests of the United States government and 'the goals of our free society.' "

The statement concluded that the investigation "would be conducted in consultation with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies."

Various officials of relevant government agencies and labor unions said they don't know what Hatch is talking about. AFL-CIO spokesman Rex Hardesty was quoted in The Louisville Courier-Journal as saying that the Hatch announcement was no more than a grab for headlines that had people laughing "all over town."

The impression that the whole thing was orchestrated to influence the UMW election was enhanced by a statement issued by Church and carried by news services along with the Hatch announcement.

Church offered his cooperation and said, in part, "Many of us in the labor movement have viewed with alarm for quite some time the professionally organized, well-bankrolled dissident movements that have been active in the Teamsters, Steelworkers and Mine Workers unions, among others."

However, aides to Church said his statement was issued only after the Hatch statement was circulated.

They further noted that the UMW opposed Hatch's reelection. Records of the Federal Election Commission confirm that the UMW contributed at least $5,000 to Hatch's Democratic opponent.

Darrell said he doesn't know specifically what prompted Hatch's action at that time.

Hatch aides indicated that it is not clear how they would distinguish between legitimate union activity and subversive disruption of an industry.

Darrell said the Labor Committee, meanwhile, has received a number of calls from various sources in organized labor and in the government offering information to help the senator's investigation.

"It may be a very small nerve, but we have touched a nerve," he said.

But he also said, "Anytime you put out a statement like this it puts a conservative Republican in the same spotlight that a certain senator back in the mid-'50s used. We get calls, 'Oh, you're looking for Commies, eh?' Well, I'd feel more comfortable if I could produce documentation that these were anti-communist terrorists."