Question: If the average federal worker (at $17,000 plus) earns $4,000 to $6,000 more than his industry cousin, how come federal pay is 10.4 percent behind the private sector?

The figures are essentially correct. It is the interpretation that allows federal unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to use the same data and get totally different results.

Federal union leaders believe their members are about to get the shaft in the name of federal pay "reform." They believe that "reform" is a codeword for hard-times, just like "law and order" is considered by some as a put down for minorities.

The unions claim the White House used, and misused, statistics to sell public and the press on civil service "reform" and that the same thing is about to happen on pay reform.

The Carter administration won civil service reform, some unions contend, by fibbing mightily about the difficulties of firing incompetents and feeding upon myths about government employment and the bureauracy. Unions expect a new round of antibureaucrat statements from the White House, indicating that federal workers are paid too much.

President Carter's federal pay reform plan already has been introduced in Congress. It proposes a wide variety of changes including linking federal clerical pay to local industry rates, matching federal fringes to industry, creating a new government holiday -- Martin Luther King's birthday -- in January. Some newspapers -- including The Washington Post -- have already given pay reform their tentative endorsement. Congress has yet to act on it.

Both sides in the pay "reform" fight are spending a lot of time in and attention to the editorial and news offices of newspapers radio and TV stations. The Office of Personnel Management has sent mass-mailings of pro-pay reform material to the media, and copies of newspaper articles touting benefits to date from civil service reform. To counter the barrage of words and statistics, unions also are hitting the media with their versions.

Here are some interesting excerpts from the editorial package prepared by the National Federation of Federal Employes. The independent union starts off by saying, "Yours may be among many newspapers duped either by editorial policy or propaganda from the Carter administration into supporting the president's pay reform legislation . . . it is important that you see behind the self-serving statements by which the White House is peddling its ruinous power grab . . . first civil service 'reform and now pay reform' . . . ."

NFFE says the government's top personnel expert, OPM director Alan K. Campbell admits that straight pay average comparisons between government and industry are deceptive. They quote Campbell, chief salesman for civil service and pay reform, as saying:

" . . . If you take the total private sector, divide the number of workers by the payroll there, you will get an average salary of a little bit over $12,000 a year. If you do the same thing on the federal side, you get a salary of a little over $17,000 a year. Therefore, people argue that federal employees are paid 42 percent more than private sector employees . . . " But this, NFFE and Campbell point out, doesn't take take into account the different makeup of the federal vs. industry workforce. Government has more scientists than secretaries, more lawyers than window-washers.

Campbell and company hope to sell pay reform on its merits, something they believe will be good for the feds and the taxpayers. NFFE and its sister unions suspect "reform" will cost their members money, and they want to make sure it is not sold to the public on the basis of horror stories and statistics that are suspect even by the people using them.