Twenty-three years ago more than 100,000 postal workers went out on strike protesting low pay and poor working conditions. They came back under a general amnesty, and got a pay raise.

Two weeks ago 15 postal employes in Houston left their office protesting poor working conditions (Hurricane Alicia had damaged the substation). They have been fired.

Lesson in labor relations: You can't fire or jail 100,000 people for striking, so you call it a "work interruption" and carry on. But if 15 people in an organization of 650,000 go on strike, you call it a strike and lower the boom.

According to a report in the Federal Times, the Houston letter carriers got into hot water Aug. 22 when they they left work complaining that the hurricane had knocked out electricity and air conditioning, making it impossible to work at the Anson Jones substation. Postal officials say that conditions were much the same in other parts of the Houston area, where 8,000 workers continued moving the mail.

The Houston 15--all letter carriers--returned to work the next day. They worked until Aug. 31, when the Postal Service said it wouldn't be needing them any more.

They were fired for allegedly striking, and for being absent without leave. One worker also was charged with instigating and "precipitating the strike." They plan to appeal.

Government employes take a no-strike oath when they join Uncle Sam. The penalty for striking the government (12,000 ex-air traffic controllers can tell you it is sometimes imposed) is dismissal or a stiff fine or up to a year and a day in jail or a combination of those.

Until a few years ago, strikes or "work stoppages" were ignored or given a less sinister-sounding name. Sometimes it was downright comical.

In the early 1970s a group of professionals at the ACTION agency called the news media and announced a work stoppage. It lasted about six hours. But after huddling with management officials, the employes who announced the strike did an about-face and said there had been no such thing. ACTION agreed, and took no action.