How you feel about the postal workers' pay arbitration probably depends on which recent experience with the U.S. Postal Service stands out in your mind. If you remember standing in those long lines to mail parcels last week, you're probably not feeling very charitable toward the postal workers -- even if they did warn you to mail early. If you're remembering that your grandchild's card -- the one with the misspelled name and mostly missing address -- managed to reach you before Christmas, you might find the pay settlement not unreasonable.

Settlements reached through binding arbitration are rarely a good deal for the public. That's because both sides -- knowing that if bargaining reaches an impasse, arbitrators will tend to split differences down the middle -- usually start with the most extreme positions they feel they can defend with a straight face and feel little compulsion to compromise. In this case, postal service management demanded a freeze on pay for current workers, sharp cuts in pay for new hires and cuts in certain fringe benefits for everyone. The union wanted to keep all its current benefits and to boost wages by about 19 percent over three years.

To their credit the arbitrators, whose decision is binding, worked out a compromise that at least moves the postal pay scale in the right direction. The average current worker is promised a 2.7 percent annual raise and a partial cost-of-living adjustment; he should find his pay rising slightly faster than inflation over the three-year contract period. But postal-worker productivity has been increasing, and that should moderate the effect of the raise on postal rates.

Moreover, part of the costs will be offset by 15 to 25 percent cuts in starting wages for custodial, clerical and delivery workers. Most new hires will have to work more than 21/2 years before earning what starting workers are now paid. New promotion possibilities will also be added at higher grade levels to make it easier for the service to attract and retain technicians and other highly skilled workers. These shifts will move the postal pay scale more in line with private-sector wages.

Some people, noting that a first-class postage stamp will soon cost two cents more, will feel the changes don't go far enough. But it's only fair to note that while its workload continues to grow enormously, productivity gains have made it possible for the service to handle that burden with substantially fewer workers than at the start of the 1970s. And in recent years the price of a stamp has risen more slowly than other prices.

It's not good for any business to operate on the expectation of constantly rising prices. But the current settlement provides at least the possibility of continued restraint at the post office.