B. Lawrence Branch, a drug company executive in Rahway, N.J., credits the federal government with successfully pushing companies like his to hire more minorities and women.

"It's the old hammer hanging over your head," he said of the Labor Department's affirmative action requirements for federal contractors. "Without that, some people wouldn't do anything. With voluntary goals, a lot of companies will say, 'Hey, I volunteer not to do it.' "

But Jim Supica Jr., a contractor in Lenexa, Kan., said he feels differently about the program. He said the government unfairly accused his firm of discrimination for failing to hire at least 12.7 percent minorities and 6.9 percent women to drive its trucks. The company has only two truck drivers, both white men.

"I think you can see the absurd situation you get into," he said. "It sounds like a quota to me."

These divergent views typify the divisions among businessmen over Executive Order 11246, the 20-year-old presidential directive that requires affirmative action by federal contractors.

Many businesses, led by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, support Labor Secretary William E. Brock in resisting a new executive order that would eliminate minority hiring goals and timetables. Another faction of the business community, led by the Chamber of Commerce and Associated General Contractors, is backing Attorney General Edwin Meese III's push for a new order that would abolish the statistical measures that they view as quotas.

Meese told a news conference last week that his Civil Rights Division, headed by William Bradford Reynolds, has collected "a litany" of cases at the Labor Department "where goals and timetables were actually used as subterfuges for quotas."

But a Justice Department official said later that the information is deemed confidential and would not be released.

The official cited only one case by name -- that of Supica, whose name is also being given to reporters by Associated General Contractors.

Joseph N. Cooper, director of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, said he did not know what Meese was talking about. He said the 1965 executive order enforced by his office specifically forbids the use of quotas, and that he would "come down hard" on any employer found doing otherwise.

"Nobody's ever put any cases before me that involve quotas," Cooper said. "I'm still waiting. I don't see them."

Cooper also disputed statements by a Justice Department official that the program imposes "makeup goals" on companies for past discrimination. He said no such goals exist.

Cooper said contractors must show "a good-faith effort" to recruit and hire minorities and women, and that "they are not penalized if they are not able to meet those goals." He said that debarment from federal contracts, which has been imposed twice since 1981, is "an absolute last resort," and that some rules may be relaxed to ease the burden on smaller companies.

Cooper's office sets hiring goals based on the local availability of minorities and women in a given field. It monitors contractors with more than 20 million employes and adopted corrective plans in 1,158 cases last year.

One leading critic of the current program, the Chamber of Commerce, was unable to name any companies that oppose it. "We have had a number of companies contact us, but they do not want any visibility," said the chamber's Virginia Lamp.

The National Association of Manufacturers, by contrast, cited numerous members that support the Labor Department program. William S. McEwen, director of equal opportunity at Monsanto Co., said many business leaders have grown comfortable with a national system of regulation.

No company wants to face "a situation where 50 states pass 50 different laws and we'd be subject to compliance reviews in 50 different areas," he said.

McEwen said the program also protects companies from reverse-discrimination suits by white employes. "If we try to practice voluntary affirmative action . . . we stand the risk of lawsuits," he said.

Finally, he said that if Reagan abolishes hiring goals, Congress is likely to pass a law restoring the program in a more stringent form.

McEwen said that when he joined Monsanto in 1971, "it was one of the worst companies I'd ever run into as far as their minority hiring was concerned. They were only going to do that which was necessary to get by, and not a bit more."

But he said the Labor program helped change company attitudes, and that the number of minorities in top management jobs has more than quadrupled in the last eight years.

Branch, director of equal employment at Merck Co., said the Labor Department recently spent eight days collecting "volumes of information" at his firm. In the past, he said, "They were sometimes unreasonable, but recently they have cleaned up their act. Some of the old types would have wallowed around here looking for something, dotting i's and crossing t's."

While Merck has greatly increased its hiring of blacks and women in the last decade, Branch said, "we did not make every target" in the latest federal review. But he said the firm has "made a good-faith effort" and that the government "did not come down on our case."

Supica, secretary of United Bridge Co., has a much harsher view of the program. He said three of the firm's 15 employes are minorities, which exceeds the goal for his Kansas area, but that the Labor Department insists that these goals be met for each job category.

In a letter last August, a Labor official told Supica's firm that it had "failed to exert adequate good-faith efforts to achieve the minimum minority hiring goal of 12.7 percent for truck drivers and the minimum female hiring goal of 6.9 percent for carpenters, heavy equipment operators, ironworkers, truck drivers and laborers' trades."

Supica said the only way to meet the goal for his two truck-driving jobs would be to hire one black and one woman, shutting out white men. He said the firm had no full-time female employes because "the heavy construction trades are a difficult area in which to recruit and train women. There just aren't a lot of women in the field. Probably 99 percent of our applicants are male."

Supica acknowledged that he was allowed to retain his government contracts, although he did not meet the hiring targets, by pledging to step up his recruitment efforts. Still, he said, "I'm not satisfied that this is a fair way to apply the regulations.