Government workers who are also union officials are not eligible for federally paid airplane tickets, meals and lodging -- in addition to full pay -- when they travel to negotiate, or update, contracts with their federal agencies.

The new ruling by the Federal Labor Relations Authority puts civil servant-union aides on a par with their management counterparts. They already enjoy fully paid per diem when they are called to Washington, or regional headquarters, to negotiate contracts. The millions of dollars that unions will save under the new system will be made up by federal agencies, out of funds Congress must approve for labor-management programs.

Federal workers who represent unions in their agencies already are permitted official time (payment of salary) to negotiate new contracts. Many union leaders also spend virtually full time on union business while being paid for their regular federal jobs. But the new FLRA ruling broadens the payment of "on-the-clock time" to all negotiations during the life of a contract, rather than just during formal start-up negotiations.

Federal officials say they have no idea how much on-the-clock time employe union officials now use or are paid for. Nor do they know how much management absorbs for its own officials. But they point out there are more than 3,000 local and national contracts in force between unions representing federal blue collar and white collar workers.

The FLRA decision does not include the U.S. Postal Service.

The FLRA is the "little NLRB", the independent agency that administers the federal labor-relations program.Although it acts independently of the White House, its decision amounts to a multi-million-dollar Christmas gift for the financially hard-pressed federal unions that President Carter is courting.

Until now, union officials who had to travel out of town to negotiate contracts have had to pay their own way, or be reimbursed by local or national offices. This means the unions can now bring as many people to the negotiating table as management does -- and that salaries and per diem of both groups will be paid by the same source -- the taxpayer.

The decision could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in retroactive payments. Since January the American Federation of Government Employes, the biggest officials to file unfair labor practice charges because government refused to pay travel costs.

If the union wins some, or all, of the pending cases, federal agencies could be out a bundle as they reimburse their employes for contract-related travel costs.