Striking Metro workers here and postal employes involved in wildcat walkouts in New York and California may be hit hard - losing jobs or going to jail - if the government decides to abandon its policy of ignoring strikes.

Strikes against the federal or D.C. government are illegal. But nobody in modern times has been jailed for doing it. That, with one big exception, is because nobody did it.

Previous work stoppages in government have been ignored either because they were too big to handle - like the 1970 wildcat strike involving 220,000 postal workers - or too small, like a 6-hour strike last year by a few workers in a small federal agency here, to bother with. The present strike situation may work out differently, because the number of people involved is more "manageable" and because government and public opinion is changing.

Example: During the brief 1970 postal wildcat strike, Nixon administration aides considered using the no-strike law. But they learned it would mean shoving 200,000 middle-class taxpayers into jail (thereby tripling the prison population), or firing all of them. The idea was dropped. Instead, Nixon sent in federal troops (as a face-saver for the unions), granted workers a raise and agreed to an amnesty for strikers who enjoyed general support from the public.

Other "strikes" against the government have been ignored. Employes have been allowed to take leave for one or two-day periods and the "strikes" usually fizzled without the public even knowing one had taken place. The government policy was to pretend there was no strike because dealing with it was politically dangerous, especially if it meant slapping 200,000 postal workers in jail for something employes at General Motors and other private plants do frequently.

Many METRO workers - and some D.C. government officials - are unaware that they are covered by the same law (Title 5 of the U.S. Code, Section 73-11) that applies also to the federal government. It reads:

"An individual may not accept or hold a position in the government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia if he (1) advocates the overthrow of our constitutional form of government, (2) is a member of an organization that he knows advocates the overthrow of our constitutional form of government, (3) participates in a strike against the government of the United States, or the government of the District of Columbia."

That, like it or not, is the law! And the possible penalty for breaking it is dismissal, a year and a day in jail and/or a fine of $1,000.

Federal and union officials agree that the government would not put a large number of employes in jail for striking. But they also agree that the government could, rather easily, use the lesser of the penalties and fire a relatively small number of strike leaders as an example for others.

Most of the strike action within the postal service is coming from the bulk mail centers. These are giant factories where overtime is mandatory, work conditions are often unpleasant and where accident rates are relatively high.

Postal officials have agreed, in the tentative new contract, to continue the "no-layoff" clause. That means lifetime job guarantees for employes. But the USPS knows it must reduce the work force, and attrition, which has cut it by about 70,000 in 3 years, isn't producing the results officials want.

Postal union leaders are afraid that workers at the bulk mail centers may be cutting their own throats with their small, isolated, unsanctioned wildcat strikes. It leaves them open to dismissal, no matter what the contract says about "no-layoffs."

The Metro strike is being studied closely by federal and D.C. officials who want to set an example, because it has all the proper ingredients for a crackdown. It has irritated and inconvenienced just about everybody in town, from members of Congress to clerks. Merchants are furious and losing money. Traffic congestion and pollution are up - and all this during the hottest spell of the year. And the numbers are right.

Hardliners in the federal and D.C. governments believe it would be simple, and smart, to make an example of some of the metro strikers. They believe it could head off future strike problems in other federal operations.

The government has shrugged off strikes before, but it may not do it again. Postal union members, who haven't yet voted on the contract, are upset by the wildcatters. The Metro walkout has been denounced by many union members and leaders. And both groups are vulnerable because they are small enough for the government to deal with without crippling other government operations.