A photo caption in the Outlook Section of Aug. 23 erroneously stated that postal workers have the right to strike. The 1970 Postal Reorganization Act gave postal workers the right to collectively bargain with management on wages and working conditions but continued the statutory ban on strikes by postal employes.

IF YOU TRIED TO FLY anywhere in the last three weeks, you may find it amusing to know that in 1978 Congress declared that "labor organizations and collective bargaining in the civil service are in the national interest."

If you believe that, you probably also believe that Nancy Reagan shops at Goodwill. The truth is that federal civil service unions are a national embarrassment. Sure, they'll militantly protect your rights if you're one of those federal workers who insists on sleeping, watching television or salivating over pornographic movies while on the job. But when it comes to traditional trade union concerns, they have all the powers of a high school student council.

Forget the air traffic controllers for a minute. There, at least, the fight has been over real issues like wages and hours and the right to strike. Consider, instead, labor in the rest of the federal government where three out of five civil servants are covered by union contracts.

Without the right to strike or to bargain over wages and hours, most federal unions go after trivia with the avidity of a trained pig who has picked up the scent of truffles. Civil service unions justify their existence by serving class interests of three types of federal workers: union officials, malingerers and borderline incompetents. Labor relations in the federal government would be funny, if they didn't hamstring the difficult job of managing the federal bureaucracy.

Ponder, if you will, three examples:

On Oct. 3, 1979, John R. Sparks, a civilian pipefitter at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, was working the graveyard shift. His assignment: guarding the passageway leading to a radiation area aboard the nuclear submarine, the USS Bergall.

According to testimony in an arbitration hearing, two supervisors discovered Sparks at 2 a.m. "wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses . . . leaning back in his chair with his head down." By most reasonable definitions, Sparks was asleep on duty.

Feeling that this was a serious breach of discipline, the shipyard decided to suspend Sparks for two days. Outraged, Sparks filed a formal grievance under his union contract. A year later, an outside arbitrator, whose fees came to $853.82, finally rendered a verdict.

The decision should gladen the hearts of everyone who believes that federal workers have an inate right to sleep on the job. The arbitrator ruled that Sparks was right. Under his union contract, the appropriate penelty should have been a letter of reprimand.

After almost four years of dispute, the Labor Department and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union in the civil service, came to agreement on a contract last year. It is full of provisions designed to make the Labor Department a fun employer.

The most famous one is Article 12, Section 8 which declares, "Employes have the right to play radios, cassettes, etc., on the worksite so long as the use does not disturb . . . other employes within the worksite . . ."

This clause should gladden the hearts of everyone who believes that federal workers have an innate right to disco on the job. Theoretically, a supervisor could claim that the constant babble of soap operas (televisions are covered by the "etc." in the contract) was driving him up the wall. But to win his point, he would probably have to endure a protected union grievance hearing.

Then there were the two civilian firefighters at Plattsburgh Air Force Base who were issued letters of reprimand for watching pornographic movies while on duty. Needless to say, they also challenged this punishment under their union's grievance procedure.

The outside arbitrtor's decision last October was another landmark victory for employe right in the federal sector. After denouncing the treatment of one of the firefighters as "a star chamber procedure," the arbitrator went on to say that Air Force had no case. After all, he reasoned, nothing in "the Rules and Regulations of the Plattsburgh Air Base prohibited possessing and/or showing pornographic films."

Meddlesome unions in the federal government are a relatively recent development. Twenty years ago civil service unions were primarily social clubs and represented about 10 percent of the federal workers. All that changed in 1962 when President John Kennedy issued an executive order that formally gave federal unions the right to bargain collectively. It was a classic well-intentioned liberal gesture. Trade unions worked well in the private sector, why not make the federal government a model employer by extending the same rights to civil servants?

There were obvious logical flaws to this approach, but they were not readily apparent for more than a decade. How could you have meaningful collective bargaining without the right to strike or to negotiate over wages? How could you manage the federal bureaucracy when workers are not only protected by complicated civil services rules, but union contracts, as well?

During the 1960s, federal unions spent the bulk of their time on Capitol Hill successfully lobbying for federal pay increases. The politically potent postal unions, with active members in all 435 congressional districts, led the way and the more docile civil service unions like AFGE went along for the ride. It wasn't collective bargaining in the formal sense, but when you had the congressional civil service committee in the palm of your hand, who needed to negotiate with management over wages and benefits?

Two events in the early 1970s ended this harmonious system.

The creation of an independent Postal Service gave postal workers the right to bargain over wages and divided them from their counterparts in the civil service. Unions like the AFGE hailed this reform since they were now the undisputed voice of the federal worker on Capitol Hill and within the AFL-CIO. Meanwhile, Congress handed over the right to set federal pay scales to a blue-ribbon commission which provided for extensive union representation.

Unfortunately, a few unforeseen problems developed. The decision of the commission were, in fact, only advisory and could be vetoed and a budget-cutting president. Shorn of the support of the postal unions, federal workers suddenly faced a hostile climate on Capitol Hill. The results can be measured in dollars and cents. During the 1970s, federal white-collar pay rose by only 89 percent, while postal workers negotiated wage increases of 164 percent.

In 1978, the current crazy-quilt of federal collective bargaining was etched in stone thanks to Jimmy Carter's obsession with civil service reform. Federal unions were understandably reluctant to support a bill that supposedly made it easier for the government to fire incompetents. So Carter offered them a carrot. He would codify into law all the rights and privileges of federal collective bargaining that had evolved since Kennedy's executive order. Along the way, a few liberal congressmen boardened the legislative language, but these alterations were not enough to halt the great engine of reform.

Thwarted on meat-and-potatoes concerns like pay and benefits and deprived of the right to strike, federal unions in recent years have become zealous crusaders over issues that have the importance of cocktail olives.

Take the Lady Madonna dispute, for example. This was one of the big-ticket items that deadlocked bargaining over a recent contract for civilian employes of the Indiana Air National Guard. The issue was simple: when should pregnant employes be allowed to wear maternity clothing on the job? But the dispute became so protracted that the Federal Service Impasses Panel, a seven-person board of independent arbitrators, had to impose a settlement. Management contended that they had the right to decide when between the third and sixth month maternity clothing was appropriate. The union position, which was upheld by the Impasses Panel, was that this was an issue best left to "competent medical authorities."

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, they wrangled over parking spaces. This, too, was a contract provision so important that it had to be decided by the Impasses Panel early this year. Management wanted a system that awarded extra spaces on the basis of GS-rating, while the activist union held out for a point system that also factored in seniority. Trade unionism took it on the chin when the arbitrators ruled for management.

As we now all know, a strike by federal employes is a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. This antistrike ban makes perfect sense until you sit down at the bargaining table. Then you find there is no incentive for either side to ever come to an agreement on a contract. Things are different in the private sector where negotiators for both sides operate under a firm strike deadline which, like an execution, does wonders to focus your mind.

The current impasse over a first-time national contract for 85,000 workers at the Social Security administration provides a perfect illustration. Negotiations have been moving about as fast as traffic over the Boy Bridge on a summer weekend. Bargaining began in June 1980 and broke off 11 months later with 33 issues still unresolved.

This dispute is still in the preliminary stages of arbitration by the Impasses Panel. If both sides agree to expedited procedures, a final settlement might be handed down in November. But if formal hearings are requested, the battle could drag on until March 1982. At that rate, it would have taken almost two years to finally agree on a three-year contract.

The negotiations have not been exactly a hardship for the AFGE bargaining team at Social Security. Under the civil service reform act, the union negotiators must still be paid their full salaries by the federal government, even though some of them may not have set foot in their Social Security offices during the 11 months of formal bargaining. What's more, the federal government is also obligated to pick up their travel and per diem expenses while they work on the contract.

No wonder so much of the bargaining in the federal government is over the right of union officials to take time off from work to carry out their union duties.

There are few hard figures on what these endless contract negotiations cost the taxpayer, although the Office of Personnel Management has begun to study the issue. One set of numbers, however, did emerge during the 21 months it took to reach agreement on a union contract covering 3,000 workers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency with an $140 million annual budget.

According to management at the EEOC, the total cost of the bargaining was $455,139.70. Most of the expenses on the management side went for salaries. But the union team also ran up bills of $107,000 under the heading of travel and per diem. Since you can't have bargaining without a table, furniture rental cost $3,000. Then there was $4,100 for photocopying and $9,100 to purchase two IBM memory typewriters.

Extreme examples? Not really. But if you have any doubts, let's examine the most recent union contract on file with the OPM. That's a three-year national contract covering 1,400 workers at the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board that went into effect on Aug. 10.

There is nothing to suggest that this backwater agency is the J.P. Stevens of the federal government. In the last 20 years, only one union grievance from the Retirement Board has gone to arbitration. Nonetheless, the bulk of this contract focuses on two key issues: the rights and privileges of union officials and the protection of employes against harsh and brutal management practices.

What's the worst thing that can happen to a federal employe? Being fired for incompetence? Don't be ridiculous, this is the government. How about applying for a new job at a higher grade level and not being chosen? That's a pretty horrendous example of management riding roughshod over hapless federal workers.

Luckily, the new union contract protects anyone at the Retirement Board who is the victim of "non-selection for promotion" through a complex, multipart grievance procedure. All this elaborate contractual language is in addition to regular civil service procedures that already make such a fetish out of fairness and due process that management of the federal bureaucracy is an administrative nightmare.

The grievance procedure in the contract begins with the statement that any employe "who questions non-selection for promotion is entitled to an administrative review." (Translation: More paperwork for the boss).

If the rejected applicant was among the "best qualified" for the job, he/she (this is, of course, a nonsexist contract) must be told the reasons for nonselection. (Translation: The boss must come up with an explanation that doesn't open up the doors for a discrimination suit).

But what if the applicant was only barely qualified for the job? The bureau chief still must explain what "areas he/she should improve to increase chances for future promotion." (Translation: Anything you say will be used against you the next time you try to pass this worker over for promotion).

If the employer is still not satisfied after this review, the entire matter can be appealed to the chief executive officer of the agency who must investigate the complaint. (Translation: Now that matters have reached the front office, the bureau chief who made the original decision is in one heap of trouble.)

There's more to this grievance procedure, but you get the point. Everyone at the Railroad Retirement Board is entitled to a promotion, regardless of his/her abilities or his/her work. Any manager who believes otherwise had better be prepared to endure the slings and arrows of an angry union.

There is an easy solution to this dilemma. Congress could give every federal worker the right to be covered by either a union contract or civil service rules. One or the other, but not both. Workers who believe that in union there is strength would be granted the right to strike and the right to bargain over wages, hours and benefits.

Conservatives naturally will claim that strikes would cripple the federal government and fat union contracts would empty the Treasury. But I wonder.

Would America be ground to a halt by strikes at HUD, EEOC, the Indiana Air National Guard or the Railroad Retirement Board? You've got to be kidding. Who would notice?

As for holding down wage settlements, that's easy. Make David Stockman the chief negotiator for management. Just picture a bargaining table with Stockman battling it out with the career bureacrats at the Department of Education. It's almost enough to make you believe in civil service unions.