Pubic-employee unions foresee possible problems for bargaining in the unexpectedly heavy vote by postal workers to accept a new contract -- one many militant local leaders oppose.
Many in labor's top offices believe the postal workers' approval of the pact, despite some dissatisfaction with it, is a strong indication that public employees may not be as willing to stand up to government employers as in the past.
That belief is tied to a concern that President Reagan's tough stand with air traffic controllers, as well as his earlier toughness in postal bargaining, will set a pattern for other federal, state, and local agencies.
Presidents of the two major mail unions, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the National Association of Letter Carriers, reported early Aug. 24 that the vote to ratify the new contract was "overwhelming -- about 5 or 6 to 1 ."
The two officials, Moe Biller of the APWU and Vincent Sombrotto of the Letter Carriers, credited the "very good contract" for the strong vote of approval. Mr. Biller and other union officials said the stern measures taken by the Reagan administration in the air traffic controllers dispute had "no effect whatever" on the postal employees vote.
Others take a different view of the first contract vote since President Reagan fired some 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization when they struck illegally.
A postal union leader in the New York area, who declined to be identified, said that members of his local expressed strong dissatisfaction over contract terms considered inadequate to make up for the financial losses from three years of inflation. When it came to voting, he said, workers feared the new "take it or leave it" policy of the Reagan administration. They voted to accept a package settlement for a pay increase amounting to $2,100 over three years for the average postal worker and giving unlimited cost-of-living adjustments.
Public-employee unions have been worried about the possible effect of the air controllers strike on the militancy and loyalty of government workers from the federal to the local level. Federal employees and those in many state, county, and local governments are barred from striking. Many have ignored this in the past. Penalties have seldom been severe. Very few workers have lost jobs.
Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said recently he doubts that there is a state labor negotiator, a city manager, a school board administrator, or any other public employer who "will not want to look like a hero when he sees the President of the United States being applauded for being tough and closing every door to a settlement, in defiance of all the civilized rules of collective bargaining."
Three years ago W. Howard McClennan, as president of the AFL-CIO's Public Employee Department, warned that dissatisfied workers will "knowingly break a no-strike law or defy a court order, and be willing to go to jail over it."
Labor officials wonder if that assessment of public employee militancy will have to be reconsidered now.