The memories of the air-traffic controller strike three years ago are not lost on the Reagan administration and unionized postal employees, who are deadlocked in a contract dispute.
Three years ago, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization struck the Federal Aviation Administration in a contract dispute. Union members ignored a White House order to return to work, so strikers were fired and barred from future federal employment. Their union was decertified.
Now that labor contracts covering more than 500,000 US Postal Service employees have run out, the dispute over new contract proposals has led to threats of ''wildcat'' or illegal strikes. But postal workers are subject to federal no-strike regulations. Still, pressure is growing from the rank and file for job action to force a settlement without yielding to the Postal Service's demand for a wage freeze and other concessions.
Moe Biller, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), said in Washington, ''Quite frankly, it's the leadership that holds them in tow now.''
The APWU and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) are scheduled to open their national conventions on Aug. 19, and the impasse with the US Postal Service will be at the top of both agendas. The Postal Service is demanding a three-year wage freeze for current employees and a unilateral cut in entry-level pay for new workers of about 20 percent.
''There are courses of action which can be taken and which I do not have to divulge to the other side now,'' Mr. Biller said. He said the unions would be entering ''uncharted waters.'' And while he conceded that a strike would be illegal, he added that the ''major provocation'' of the two-tier wage plan ''certainly increases the chances'' of illegal work stoppages.
Postmaster General William F. Bolger, who blames APWU and NALC leaders for the deadlock, this week warned that postal workers who ''commit an illegal act in either wildcat or nationwide strikes'' will be fired immediately and ''determination will be permanent . . . that is not an option for me, it is the law.''
There are political implications for both sides. President Reagan's mass firing of air controllers and the bar against rehiring angered organized labor, leading to charges that Mr. Reagan is anti-union. But unions are aware that a strike that could disrupt mail service could cost the Democrats votes this fall.
In accordance with federal law, bargaining has now gone to fact-finding and arbitration processes that have a Dec. 10 deadline.