Are government workers paid more than employees doing the same jobs in private industry? A lot of people in private industry say the answer is "yes." Most government workers don't agree.

A couple of weeks ago this column quoted the top economist of the Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. He said that federal employees get about $4,000 a year more than their industry counterparts (exclusive of fringe benefits). He said that the forth coming October raise for government workers (about 7.05 per cent) is way out of line.

W. Howard McClennan, president of AFL-CIO's public employees department, thinks - to tone it down a bit - that the Chamber is full of baloney. He asked for equal time to give the government employee viewpoint. Here it is:

". . . The Chamber of Commerce apparently is ignorant of the government's only official study used to measure federal pay with comparable private-sector salaries. Prepared annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the survey compares salaries and pay raises received by workers in private industry with the salaries paid employees who perform 'similar' jobs in the federal government.

"According to the BLS, federal white-collar workers during the past 6 years have fallen nearly 25 per cent behind raises received by workers performing comparable jobs in the private sector. While some disagreement exists over certain job definitions used in the survey, the fact remains: federal white-collar workers earn less than their counterparts in private industry."

McClennan says the Chamber used unrelated data from the Commerce Department, rather than the BLS study, to reach its conclusion that government workers are overpaid. He continues:

The Chamber cited Commerce Department figures that show the average industry salary last year was $11,480, compared to the $16,201 average in the federal government. McClennan says the Chamber is using bad data, out of context, and knows it. He continued:

"In determing private sector 'average pay,' the Commerce Department includes many traditionally low-paying jobs, such as janitors and laundry workers. These jobs are contracted out in the federal government and don't show up in the averages.

"Other points could be made, but the result is that the 'average' federal salary tends to be inflated while 'average' private wages are depressed . . . the Commerce survey is not designed to compare salaries between industries. That is why it is not used as a baromenter of federal white-collar pay.

"Such misleading tactics by the Chamber of Commerce are consistent with the past performance of this so-called respectable organization," McClennan said. "Recently, the Chamber released a study purporting to prove minimum-wage increases cause inflation and unemployment.

"The report, based on figures developed by a well known economist, contained such glaring discrepancies that members of the House Education and Labor Committee virtually laughed it out of the room. The economist, in fact, later disassociated himself from the report, declaring 'The Chamber made some rather blatant assertions."

"Breaking down preconceived notions held by the general public is difficult. But the Chamber of Commerce's 'blatant assertions' concerning government salaries only feed the myth of our 'lazy, overpaid federal work force' and should not be taken seriously by the news media."

McClellan is certainly right on one point. No matter how much is written, and what statistics are used as arguments and counterarguments, it is probably safe to assume that most nonfederal workers still think the government overpays its people, while many civil servants feel they are being paid less than their industry counterparts.