District Barred From Processing Union Mailings
WASHINGTON--Acting in a case with financial implications for teachers' unions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that federal postal laws prohibit school districts from using their internal mail systems to deliver union letters to school employees.
In a 6-to-2 decision, the Court held that such action--whether mandated by state labor law or agreed to under a contract--runs afoul of the Congress's intent to establish the U.S. Postal Service as a monopoly.
Teachers' unions nationwide have negotiated contracts with school boards granting them access to districts' mail systems.
The ruling will force locals of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and other unions representing school workers that have reached such agreements to begin stamping mail to members and sending it through the Postal Service, or to find other means of delivery.
Lawyers for the unions contend that the ruling in Regents of the University of California System v. Public Employment Relations Board (Case No. 87-935) will not necessarily deny them access to individual teachers' school mailboxes, but only to districts' centralized mail-collection and sorting facilities and delivery systems that cross postal routes. In many cases, they say, collective-bargaining agreements will continue to allow members to bring union letters to individual schools and deposit them in employees' mailboxes.
James N. Odle, the lawyer who represented the University of California in the case, agreed with the unions' interpretation of the decision. Because such deliveries would not involve the crossing of postal routes, he said, they would be permissible under federal law.
"You could characterize [the decision] as inconvenient or a pain in the neck, but not as a budget-buster,'' said Robert H. Chanin, the NEA's general counsel.
His counterpart at the AFT, Lawrence A. Poltrock, added that the ruling would have less impact on his union than on the NEA because AFT locals traditionally have relied more heavily on union hand-delivery of mail than on districts' internal delivery systems.
Unfair Labor Charge
The case before the Court began in 1979, when a local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees filed a charge of unfair labor practices with the state Public Employment Relations Board against the University of California at Berkeley.
The union claimed that the university had violated the state's higher-education collective-bargaining law by barring it from distributing letters through the university's internal-mail system to employees that it hoped to organize.
Union officials said that such access was mandated under the state law, but the university countered that it would violate the federal Private Express Statutes, which generally prohibit mail-carrying by anyone other than the Postal Service.
The dispute eventually came before the California Court of Appeals, which held that the university's delivery of union mail fell under two exceptions to the federal postal rules--the "letters of the carrier'' exception, which permits an entity to run its own mail system provided that the mail concerns the institution's "current business,'' and the "private hands without compensation'' exemption, which permits private delivery of letters without payment or benefit for the service. The state supreme court declined to review the appellate ruling.
The High Court rejected that analysis in an opinion written by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and joined in full by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices William J. Brennan, Harry A. Blackmun, and Antonin Scalia. Associate Justice Byron H. White wrote a separate concurring opinion.
"Precisely what constitutes a carrier's 'current business''' under the letters-of-the-carrier exception "is not defined by the postal laws,'' Justice O'Connor noted.
"The ordinary sweep of the term, however, falls far short of encompassing the letters involved in this case.''
She said that the letters at issue in the case "can be accurately described only as the union's current business'' and not the university's.
"It strains the statutory language to contend that the phrase 'current business' includes such activity,'' she added.
She also rejected the argument that the union mail would fall under the private-hands exception.
"[W]e hold that the private-hands exception is available only when there is no compensation of any kind flowing from the sender to the carrier,'' the Justice wrote. "Here there is an arms-length business relationship between the union and the employees on the one side and [the university] on the other.
"By delivering the union's letters,'' she continued, the university "would perform a service for its employees that they would otherwise pay for themselves, through their union dues.''
"This service would become part of the package of monetary and nonmonetary benefits that [the university] provides to its employees in exchange for their services,'' she wrote. "In our view, the carriage of the union's letters pursuant to such an exchange of benefits necessarily means that the carriage is not 'without compensation.'''
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justices John Paul Stevens and Thurgood Marshall said that the letters should have fallen under the private-hands exception because, by delivering them, the university was only following state law.
"[N]o good will, at least no good will that qualifies as compensation, can be thought to arise merely because an entity does precisely what state law compels it to do,'' Justice Stevens wrote.
In a footnote, however, he said that improper compensation would occur under a similar arrangement provided for under a collective-bargaining agreement.
Under such a plan, he said, a district would receive "something of value in exchange for its agreement to provide the service.''
The Court's newest Associate Justice, Anthony M. Kennedy, took no part in the decision.
Taxes on Bonds
Acting in another case last week, the Court ruled 7 to 1 that the Congress is free to tax all interest on state and local government bonds.
Although such action by the Congress is not imminent, some financial analysts said the decision in South Carolina v. Baker (No. 94 Original) could make it more difficult for states and municipalities to raise capital for education and other social services.
In addition to issuing bonds to finance school construction and renovations, some states have recently begun issuing bonds to encourage parents to save for their children's college education.
"We see no constitutional reason for treating persons who receive interest on government bonds differently than persons who receive income from other types of contracts with the government, and no tenable rationale for distinguishing the costs imposed on states by a tax on state bond interest from the costs imposed by a tax on the income from any other state contract,'' wrote Justice Brennan for the majority.
In the sole dissent in the case, Justice O'Connor noted that if interest on government bonds were taxed, "the cost of borrowing by state and local governments would rise substantially.''
"This certainly would affect seriously state and local government revenues,'' she wrote.
Justice Kennedy took no part in the case.