The machines hum around the clock, moving the mail at the United States Postal Service's mammoth Merrifield distribution center in Fairfax County.

But lately, it's union politics, more than the daily Everest of letters bound for the populous Virginia suburbs, that seem to need sorting out.

"It's gotten pretty ugly," says William R. (Randy) King, president of Local 2608 of the American Postal Workers Union. Within 48 hours after he took office in late April, he becme the target of the first recall campaign in the history of the 1,100-member local.

More than 330 postal employes have signed petitions charging King with abusing his power and violating the local's constitution by improperly removing a shop steward and attempting to block arbitration of a formal grievance filed by a union member. In addition, the petitions seek King's ouster as local president in a speical election he has refused to call.

King denied all the allegations in the petitions.

"I have nothing to hide," says the 33-year-old King, who divides his time between union duties and work as a letter-sorting machine operator at Merrifield. "I'm not afraid to face the membership again."

He has put off the election, he said, only to buy time to "determine the legalities."

Last week, the local's executive board and six individual union members filed suit in federal court in Alexandria, asking a judge to force the election. No hearing date has been set.

"The suit speaks for itself," says Vienna lawyer Warwick R. Furr II, who presents union members opposing King. Furr has instructed his clients not to discuss the case outside the courtroom.

The complaint alleges King has sought, "by threats and intimidation," to sop Merkle Press, a printing company, from producing the ballots needed to conduct the recall election. King also has used harassment and intimidation, including threats "to get" members of the local's executive board, to head off the recall effort, the compalint contends. l

Also named as a defendant is the local's secretary-treasurer, Robert Nolen. In their complaint, the executive board and six union members allege that Nolen has refused, in violation of the local's constitution, to certify the signatures on the recall petitions. The complaint also alleges Nolen has refused to allocate union funds to pay for printing the ballots.

Both King and Nolen, the suit continues, have failed to make membership lists available, without which the election cannot be held.

Nolen declined to comment.

King's lawyer, prominent labor attorney Ira Lechner, says a response to the complaint probably will be filed late this week and will raise the issue of whether the case belongs in federal court.

"We have strong jurisdictinal questions," Lechner says, adding that internal union remedies may not have been exhausted -- particularly while the union's national leadership is preoccupied with winning approval of a new contract with the Postal Service.

The lawsuit filed last week is only the latest development in a bitter 17-month controversy between King and other union officials over the dismissal of a custodian at Merrifield.

According to union documents furnished by King during an interview, the controversy started in February of last year after three women employed at Merrifield compalined that a male custodian had exposed his genitals to them. The documents state that the alleged incidents occurred on separate occasions involving the women individually. The custodian, James Pegues of Alexandria, denied the allegations.

Pegues was placed on emergency suspension without pay by postal officials on Feb. 14, 1980, and fired late the next month.

With the support of a union shop steward, Mary Carroll, and then-local president Joseph F. Tordiff, Pegues filed a formal grievance denying the women's allegations and requesting his job back.

The grievance was denied by management at various stages of appeal, until an independent arbitrator last month ruled the suspension was improper and ordered that Pegues receive 30 days's back pay. The firing, however, was upheld.

"The testimony on the two sides is contradictory to a substantial degree . . .," the arbitrator wrote. "(It has created racial controversy and possibly internal union differences." Pegues is black; his three female accusers are white.

From the union documents supplied by King and from King's statements, it is clear that the controversial incident and its handling by the local has split union officials at Merrifield into two camps.

King, who at the time was the local's director of industrial relations, says he ws ordered by Tordiff to investigate the incident. King says he interviewed Pegues' three female accusers and later recommended that Pegues receive counseling.

But Tordiff, who is now retired, denies he ever ordered or suggested that King become involved in the case. "I had to remind him on numerous occasions that he (King) was in areas where he shouldn't be," Tordiff says.

One fact King knew and says he made other union officers aware of was that while Pergues' grievance was moving through the appeals process in mid-1980, Pegues had been charged in an unrelated sex offense in Arlington.

In a plea bargai reached on June 23 of last year, according to documents filed in Arlington Circuit Court, Pegues pleaded guilty to charges of credit card theft and simple abduction. In return, the court documents state, Arlington prosecutors agreed not to pursue additional charges of attempted rape and attempted abduction.

On Aug. 15, 1980, Pegues was sentenced by Arlington Circuit Court Judge Charles S. Russell to seven-year prison terms on each of the two counts to which he pleaded guilty. After serving six months in the Arlington jail, he was released and ordered by the court to participate in a drug and alcohol counseling program.

King says he felt strongly that, based on the allegations from the three women and Pegues' criminal record, Pegues' firing was proper.

In March of this year, King was elected president of the union local after defeating Tordiff and two other candidates. About half the local's membership voted.

"There was some talk around the (Merrifield) building (about the Pegues incident)," King says. "Some people knew parts of what was going on." However, none of the candidates made the incident an issue in the election.

The arbitration hearing was on April 21, 1981. Five days later King took office as president of Local 2608, and the next day he asked Carroll to resign as a shop steward. When she refused, King dismissed her from the post.

Shortly after the Carroll dismissal, according to King, the campaign to remove him from office was under way