Federal workers now may circulate lobbying-type petitions on the job provided that the people who hand out and receive the materials are either off duty, at lunch, or the action takes place in a nonwork area.

That may seem like an obvious, logical statement. But it was considered a federal offense in some agencies until recently. The go-ahead for the lobbying action in government buildings came after the National Treasury Employees Union went to the legal mat with the Internal Revenue Service.

IRS, understandbly, is touchy about people inside and outside the building complaining about things since IRS is one of the government's chief pain-causing agencies.

The issue came to a head last year when the NTEU - and other federal and postal unions - successfully whipped up enough opposition to temporarily block Congress from ordering mandatory Social Security coverage for government workers.

In doing so, the unions had local leaders circulate petitions opposing such mandatory coverage. They generally oppose the plans, preferring their better civil service pension program.

In one Pennsylvania IRS building, NTEU officials were told to stop passing out the petitions because it was not permissible to do things like that on federal property. To add insult to injury, NTEU felt, the union president received a warning from the IRS that, under a 1913 law, he and his petition passers could wind up being fined $500 and being forced to spend up to a year in another federal institution - jail.

NTEU officials in Washington prepared for battle. They took the issue to court, and also demanded clarification from the Justice Department. They won in court and later on got a letter from Benjamin R. Civiletti, then assistant attorney general in the criminal division, saying they could go ahead.

What Civiletti wrote was that NTEU members (and therefore other government workers) "may circulate lobbying-type petitions among their fellow federal employes within premises owned or operated by the U.S. government, provided no government funds are used to prepare or distribute such material, and provided further that these activities do not divert federal employes from their normal duties.

The official green light will delight federal workers interested in free speech and the right to petition. It should also comfort those employes who, ignorant of the law, have been passing around petitions in some agencies for years. Now they can do legally what they have been doing, unwittingly illegally, for years.

Sunshine, Partly Cloudy: The U.S. Postal Service's board of governors meets May 19 here to discuss the price of postage stamps and continuing negotiations with unions.

Under the so-called Sunshine's Act, the first part of the governor's meeting will be open. The closed session will deal with union wage and fringe demands, and the U.S. Postal Service counteroffers.

Both union and management have refused to comment on the wage package they are dealing with. However, POSTAGE, the private insiders newsletter for mail users, speculates that the wage increase in the second ond third years of a three-year contract would have to be around 9.3 percent.