"I don't like the look of it all," said the King: "however, it may kiss my hand, if it likes."

Lewis Carroll, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

If you have been following the postal contract talks, and calls for illegal, unsanctioned wildcat strikes, you might mistake that quote for some of the mouthings of union leaders who want 500,000 of their members to strike first, and think later.

After months of negotiations, postal union leaders and U.S. Postal Service officials on July 20 signed a tentative contract. It is supposed to be subject to a yes-or-no vote of the members. Supposed to be.

The contract would give union members lifetime job guarantees, a 19.5 percent raise over three years and improved (union leaders say) work rules. Instead of cutting jobs, as the postal service wants, it apparently will mean more positions for letter carriers.

It should be up to union members to decide whether it is a good contract. It should be. But a handful of union leaders have decided that the rank-and-file members cannot decide these important things for themselves.

These few union leaders, whose hefty salaries and expense accounts come out of member's dues money, want to skirt their own rules, not to mention federal law, and strike before the members have had a chance to read the contract, and vote it up or down. It is arrogance with a capital "A."

On Monday, union leaders in the New York City area have arranged for members to take a "strike" vote. This will be before members have received copies of the proposed contract, or the mail ballots to vote on it.

The New York leaders have decided they do not like the look of the contract at all.

The New Yorkers who are panting for a strike, say that as Manhattan goes, so goes the nation. They have said that if New York area workers vote to strike, postal workers in Los Angeles and Washington and everywhere else will blindly follow them to the picket line.

Workers are aware that the penalty for striking the government is dismissal, a fine and a jail term. But one wonders if any of the union leaders calling for a strike will lose any pay, or risk any time in jail.

Some of the strike-pushers argue that the postal contract is not as good as the one the mine workers got. It isn't. But postal workers aren't coal miners. The jobs and risks are different. And the miners were out a long, long time before they got part of what they wanted.

Most of us would not do what coal miners do for any account of money. Coal miners risk death daily, and work in conditions that few other American workers - postal employes, newspaper reporters or police officers - would tolerate. Those miners who do not get killed or maimed run a good chance of retiring on black lung benefits. It is hard to compare them - or what they got or what they deserve - with anybody else.

The thing that boggles the public mind, not to mention many postal union members, is the fact that some of their leaders do not want to give them a chance to vote on the contract. One has even threatened to go into court to block the mailing of ballots to members.

The national leaders of the major postal unions have voted in favor of the contract, which they helped negotiate. An advisory group of the American Postal Workers Union voted to reject the contract. Fine. That is the way it is supposed to work. The next step is for the members to decide. But some local leaders are trying to shortcircuit the democratic process. And that is wrong.

If postal workers vote to strike, it will be a majority decision. If they allow themselves to be pushed out on the street before voting, they will lose whatever congressional and public support they have.

Private firms that are aching to break the USPS mail delivery monopoly are waiting in the wings. The business community - which generates 8 of every 10 letters mailed - is scared, and ready to jump to another delivery service. Electronic transfer of funds, and messages, is just around the corner.

If the wildcatters succeed in forcing a nationwide strike before members vote, the issue could be settled by arbitration. Many people feel that the first thing any arbitrator would do is eliminate the no-layoff clause workers now enjoy.

The issue is national. But the contract acceptance, or rejection, belongs in the hands of union members and workers. They are the ones who will have to live with the decision, and take whatever lumps are coming. Let them decide.