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Keep US Postal Service first class

THE new three-year contract for postal workers is a fair compromise that strikes a careful balance: It provides noninflationary pay increases for postal workers, while bringing the US Postal Service salary schedule more into line with pay for comparable work in private industry.

The settlement - the result of an arbitration award reached after a lengthy impasse between the US Postal Service and the two largest postal unions - comes just as the Postal Service prepares to change its top leadership. On Jan. 1 Paul N. Carlin will become postmaster general, replacing William F. Bolger, who has held the job since early 1978.

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Mr. Carlin is a ''career'' postal employee, in the sense that he has been with the department since 1969, when he represented the Nixon administration during the development of the legislation creating the current postal system. The independent quasi-governmental US Postal Service replaced the old US Post Office Department, which was an agency of the federal government.

Mr. Carlin will have his work cut out for him during the next several years in maintaining - and further professionalizing - what must be considered one of the world's finest postal systems. For all the complaints made by individual Americans about mail delivery, what must be kept in perspective is that the mail invariably ''gets through'' - and usually within a day or so to a week after posting. That is no little accomplishment for a postal system which must function in a large, transcontinental nation such as the United States.

The binding arbitration award grants carriers and clerks a 2.7 percent annual pay increase during each of the next three years. Most important, the contract reforms the system's salary schedule. Pay for a small number of workers at the top end of the postal system's wage structure will be hiked some 5 percent, since their salaries have tended to lag behind salaries granted comparable workers in private industry. At the same time, starting salaries for first-time workers will be cut by an average 25 percent - again, to provide for equality with workers in private industry. The arbitration panel concluded that pay for postal workers, especially new workers, had shot ahead of private industry during the 1970s. The changes in pay schedules are designed to redress that disparity.

The task for the $25 billion US Postal Service is now clear:

* It must find ways of lowering overall costs while preserving basic services. New postage rates take effect Feb. 17. The price of a first-class stamp, for example, will rise to 22 cents from 20 cents. The Postal Service will have to make all possible savings over the next few years to hold the line on the new postal rates.

* The US Postal Service must adapt to the changing technology of the information-electronics industries in general. Why is that? Because the increasing use of electronic fund transfers by businesses, banks, and private citizens will mean stepped-up competition for the postal system. A significant part of the US Postal Service's overall revenue is derived from first-class mailings. Much of that first-class mail is business related, such as billings, which could be affected by the increasing use of electronic fund transfers.

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