Eighty-six postal workers fired four years ago for taking part in a wildcat strike will be allowed to reapply for postal jobs later this summer.

But the U.S. Postal Service says that, if rehired, the ex-employes--among 226 fired because of a three-day strike in July 1978--cannot return to their former offices, and will have to begin at starting pay rates and without any seniority they had built up before the walkout.

The action could offer hope of reinstatement for some of the 10,000-plus air traffic controllers who were fired last August for striking--even though official policy bars them from applying for jobs in the Federal Aviation Administration.

The 226 postal workers who were fired (125 in New Jersey and 101 in California) walked off the job just after leaders of the American Postal Workers Union, National Association of Letter Carriers and Mail Handlers union had tentatively agreed to a new three-year contract to replace an agreement that expired July 21. The nearly half-million members of the three AFL-CIO unions ratified the contract in a mail vote.

USPS brass promptly fired workers who were identified as either ringleaders or active participants in the strike. Although a few strikers were later "restored" to duty (some said they did not understand they were striking), the USPS has generally taken a hard-line approach toward reemployment.

That position was undercut somewhat in December when President Reagan said that fired air traffic controllers could apply for federal jobs outside of the FAA.

About 300 fired controllers have been cleared for reemployment in the federal government based on Office of Personnel Management investigations of their activities during the strike. Another 60 face rejection for various reasons.

Striking against the government is punishable by firing, a $1,000 fine and/or a year and a day in jail. Until Reagan said ex-controllers could be considered for other federal employment, the administration--and the semi-independent USPS--took the position that anyone fired for striking against the government would never get another U.S. paycheck. The Postal Service still emphasizes it will not rehire anyone found to have engaged in violence or illegal actions during the strike.

The opportunity for the fired postal workers to apply for rehiring came earlier this week when the USPS tentatively agreed to a settlement in a long-running court case. The case, before the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, involved more than 90 fired workers. Eighty-six tentatively accepted the settlement but several have indicated they will not, and will push for a trial that they hope will lead to their reinstatement with full seniority benefits and, possibly, back pay.

House Post Office-Civil Service Committee Chairman William Ford (D-Mich.) hailed the USPS decision to reconsider hiring the New Jersey strikers. He said Postmaster General William F. Bolger was a "highly skilled business manager" and a "statesman" and said he knew it was "not easy for him Bolger to alter the USPS' longstanding position" that strikers be permanently barred from reemployment.

Ford, who has been pressing the government to consider rehiring some of the fired controllers for air traffic work, said he hopes the Reagan administration "will take note of the sticky problem and apply the same logic in the case of fired controllers . . . . "