Despite three years of feuding, charges of broken promises, shaved pay raises and indignities -- from the water tap to the parking lot -- the leaders of federal and postal unions (whose hearts belong to Teddy) plan to stick with Jimmy Carter, rather than risk the perceived nightmare of a Ronald Reagan presidency.

The union chiefs, who represent the bulk of the U.S. work force have, with a couple of exceptions, shied away from endorsing Carter. Some of them have been ordered by their members not to back anybody. But the union leaders are still hoping for a preelection miracle from the White House that will permit them to endorse Carter without causing revolutions in their membership ranks. The leaders all feel that Carter and a Democratic-controlled Congress represent the best hopes of organized labor and most working people.

In the course of my duties, I talk to lots of those working people, from $8,000-a-year government messengers to big bosses. Some belong to unions, some do not. Last summer 65,400 of them responded by letter to a column asking how they felt about White House plans to cut the number of inflation adjustments for retirees, and about congressional talk of merging the civil service service system with social security. That the majority were opposed to either plan was not surprising. That 94 percent said they would vote against the president for supporting the retiree cutback was a surprise.

Metropolitan Washington is not the entire federal bureaucracy, nor do people here necessarily represent the thinking of Commerce clerks in Kansas City, or HUD lawyers in Chicago or San Francisco. On the other hand, about 13 percent of the U.S. government population is here, and one doesn't have to be clairvoyant to sense that the troops are unhappy with the general.

Many federal workers are angry about the "paltry" 9.1 percent raise they will get this month, and about past pay caps. They are irked about the imposition of pay parking, about the hot-water cutoff in office rest rooms. Many are dubious of "merit pay" systems now being introduced in government. Most are furious about White House attempts (scuttled by Congress at the last minute) to put federal and military retirees -- who now get cost-of-living raises every six months -- under an annual adjustment cycle. g

Carter aides in charge of winning the hearts and votes of 2.6 million federal workers, family members and millions of retirees believe he has taken a bum rap. They say that nobody died from the hot water cutoff; that pay parking is only fair; and that Carter would have been smarter if he wanted to ride the antibureaucrat horse to give federal workers no pay raise at all this year.

The civil service reforms that have worried some workers are not antibureaucrat, they say. Rather, they argue, reforms are designed to convince the public that government aides are not fireproof, that they are judged on merit and can be removed without undue red tape or time. (Unions have mixed feelings about reform because it did give them much more clout and gave employes an incentive to join unions to protect their jobs).

Although most major federal and postal union conventions this year banned any political endorsements on behalf of their unions, several leaders have made personal endorsements. There may be more to come.

Vincent Sombrotto of the 240,000-member Letter Carriers Union (which includes 55,000 retired members) says he will vote for Carter, based on his overall performance. On postal issues, Sombrotto said Carter "has been against us as often as he has been for us" but looking at the big picture, he sees only Carter.

Vincent Connery of the independent National Treasury Employees Union (which earlier denounced Carter as an incompetent who should be replaced by Sen. Edward Kennedy) now says he will vote for Carter. Robert White, president of the predominantly black National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, endorsed Carter last January although he too says he would have preferred Kennedy.