Best average salary in the federal establishment soon will be paid by the U.S. Postal Service, the department with the dead-end image where few people ever rise above the rank of clerk or letter carrier.

Thanks to a combination of unionization, automation and inflation, the 600,000 postal workers now routinely get bigger, and more frequent, pay riases than their 1.5 million white collar and blue collar counterparts in other federal agencies.

This year alone postal wages -- thanks to three separate raises -- have gone up 10.2 percent. That compares to a single 7 percent adjustment for the typical federal worker and a 5.5 percent raise for top white collar executives.

Postal workers bargain independently over pay and fringes. Their current three-year contract gives them annual pay raises, plus cost of living adjustments every six months.

White collar federal workers, in effect, take what the president gives them. The result has been that postal employes, for the most part clerks and letter carriers, now are moving to an average salary that is almost equal -- and soon will pass -- that of white collar workers. As of last month the average white collar civil servant outside of Washington was earning $18,713. The typical postal clerk or letter carrier's salary was $17,072.

In July of this year postal workers got a contract pay raise worth $510, or about 3 percent. Earlier, in May, they got a cost of living raise of $541. Later this month (Nove. 17) they will get their biggest raise of all, another inflation-catchup that will be worth $749 for most of the 600,000 employes.

Average postal pay will surpass the white collar federal average next year if inflation continues at its double-digit level, and white collar civil servants are held down, for political and economic reasons, to raises less than a full catchup with industry.