For many Internal Revenue Service employees, holding a union card will be almost as valuable when they have car trouble as being a member of an auto service or repair club.

Beginning in May, more than 30,000 IRS workers will be eligible to take paid time off if they must make emergency repairs of their personal cars. That time-off bonus is a first for government and maybe private industry, too.

The time off for car repairs is just one provision of a new contract between the tax collection agency and the National Treasury Employees Union, which has just ratified the agreement. It was born out of labor strife such as the government - which outlaws strikes for its own workers - has rarely seen.

What this particular clause in the contract - which covers both union and non-union members in the NTEU "bargaining unit" - means is that workers who must have such emergency repairs done be given administrative leave. That means paid time off without charge to either sick or annual leave, which employees now must take if they have car trouble.

The benefit, which starts sometime in late April or early May, when the contract goes into effect, would have been a blessing during this recent cold snap when batteries died and cars wouldn't start because of freezing weather and dangerous driving conditions over much of the nation.

There are about 8,000 IRS workers in the Washington metro area, but only about 1,200 of them will be eligible for the time off for repairs benefit. That's because the NTEU-IRS contract does not cover national office employees.

Those who will be covered by it are workers of the Baltimore field office, which includes IRS aides in Wheaton and Silver Spring, and local Virginia workers of IRS (not the Virginia state revenue service) at outposts like Baileys Cross Roads.

The paid emergency leave can be given employees - and union sides say it will be given "for "Part or all of his or her work day," as the contract reads, if that time off is for emergency auto repairs. It is not limited to employees who use their car on IRS business - as many do on a paid mileage basis - but to all cars driven to or from work by IRS employees. Although the benefit is not strictly for union-members, NTEU hopes to use it as a see-what-we-can-for-you item in recruiting new members.

IRS is one of the most car-conscious agencies in government. Most of us workers have duty stations in or near big cities, where commuting is a fact of life. Also many employees use their cars for government work and, finally, IRS people tend to be interested in benefits for cars since they write or interpret business deduction rules for everybody else.

The agreement was just one of the improvements that the aggressive union won after it resorted to semitough tactics when a deadlock was reached in late November with IRS bargainers. The union set up informational picket lines - and got lots of radio, television and newspaper coverage - in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. It was a media field day that embarrassed IRS.

NTEU, which has one of the sharpest and most successful legal and public relations operations of any government employee group, also persuaded hundreds of employees to stop using their own cars on government business.

This forced the IRS to cancel some audits, inspections and collections since it couldn't supply enough vehicles to workers. Finally, the union urged workers to cancel savings bond deductions and with drew support from the Combined Federal Campaign, the government version of UGF.

One of the other benefits won in the new contract is a guarantee that employees - who are paid every two weeks - will have to wait no longer than 72 hours for a new check if theirs isn't processed or if they are short-changed. Other federal unions are expected to push for the auto-repair time off now that NTEU has won it.