Doctors at D.C. General Hospital, the city's only public hospital, voted yesterday in favor of forming a union.

A spokeswoman for the hospital, which opposes the unionizing effort, said that 163 ballots were sent to doctors and that 83 were returned. A lawyer for the doctors said the vote was 76 to 7 in favor of forming a union.

The hospital has filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, claiming that the doctors are precluded from collective bargaining, because they are considered part of management. That case is still pending, and if the hospital wins it would make the doctors' vote academic.

If the court rules that the doctors can unionize, the hospital will ask the court to narrow the number of those who are eligible to do so to about 110, D.C. General spokeswoman Penelope Anderson said. The rest are considered supervisory personnel, she said.

A.L. Zwerdling, an attorney for the doctors, called on the hospital to stop litigation and start negotiating a contract with the doctors' group, called the Doctors' Council of D.C. General.

The doctors are dissatisfied with their salaries at the hospital, which are capped at $63,700, the same limit as for other District employes. Starting physicians' salaries are $47,749, Anderson said.

City officials have been trying to grapple with the issue of salaries for doctors employed by the city, not only at D.C. General but also in the D.C. medical examiners office and at city clinics. Since private doctors normally can make more than the city salary limit, officials want to find ways to attract qualified doctors to public service.

But the hospital, which serves the city's indigents, also has had budget problems for years. The city's subsidy of the hospital this fiscal year was set at $44 million.

If the union effort succeeds, D.C. General would become one of the few public hospitals in the country where full-time staff doctors are unionized, according to the D.C. labor relations office.