Thanks to automation, inflation and unionization, postal workers are about to pass their white-collar colleagues in pay. Some observers think they may be ahead already.

Earlier this month most of the 600,000 rank-and-file postal workers got a cost-of-living raise worth $832 a year. Under their current three-year contract with the U.S. Postal Service, nonmanagement people are guaranteed annual pay raises, plus COL boosts every six months.

The May 17 increase brought the starting pay for Level 5 (the typical clerk-letter carrier grade) to $17,158. It has a top salary of $19,820, reached in about half the time it takes a white collar civil servant to reach the top of grade.

New rates of Level 6 (skilled letter-sorting-machine operators and technicians) range from $17,746 to $20,639.

By contrast, the average nonpostal federal worker now earns about $18,500 a year. That figure is much higher in metro Washington, which is the high-grade, headquarters town.

The USPS has 300,713 full-time employes in Level 5, and another 82,501 "flexibles" who are waiting for career status. USPS figures show 72,749 full-time Level 6 personnel, and 214 in the "flexible" category.

Outside of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the USPS is the most heavily unionized federal operation. About 8 to 10 workers belong to unions, mostly AFL-CIO affiliated. Their unions bargain for wages and fringe benefits independent of the president or Congress.