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Court Backs Army-Base Teachers' Bargaining Right

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Washington--Teachers at schools run by the Defense Department have the right to bargain collectively on salary issues, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week.

It is unclear, however, how many federal employees will be affected by the decision in Fort Stewart Schools v. Federal Labor Relations Authority (Case No. 89-65), and whether federally operated schools would be able to escape such negotiations under some circumstances.

In the brief it filed in the case, the Fort Stewart Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, predicted that the outcome of the case could determine the bargaining rights of teachers and teacher aides at military-base schools in the United States, but would not affect educators at Defense Department schools abroad.

The Bush Administration argued, however, that a ruling in favor of the teachers could establish bargaining rights for some 40 categories of federal employees whose wages are not set by law.

The case was brought on behalf of employees of two elementary schools at Fort Stewart, an Army facility in Georgia.

In 1986, the Fort Stewart Association of Educators requested that the Army negotiate with the union on a proposal calling for a 13.5 percent salary increase and additional fringe benefits.

When Army officials refused, the union filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which ruled in its favor. Last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld that ruling. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.)

The Army argued that a section of the Federal Labor Management Relations Act of 1978 allowing certain federal workers to bargain collectively on "working conditions" does not cover wages and fringe benefits and that another provision bars such bargaining by stating that the law will not infringe upon agencies' authority to set their budgets.

The Army also argued that the proposed salary increase would8cause a violation of another law directing military schools to provide an education comparable to that in comparable public schools at similar per-pupil costs.

In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court ruled that the term "working conditions" does include salary and fringe benefits where they are not set by law.

The Court also ruled that the "comparability" law does not bar negotiations on a salary increase that could raise the pay of the military-base teachers above that of their counterparts in similar schools.

Defense Department regulations implementing the "comparability" statute state that military schools' services will be considered comparable to those in public schools when 10 factors, including salary schedule, are, "to the maximum extent practicable, equal."

Justice Scalia noted, however, that agencies are required to negotiate even matters covered by regulations as long as there is no "compelling need" for the regulations. And Federal Labor Relations Authority rules state that this standard is met only when a regulation is "essential" to an agency's mission, necessary to maintain "merit principles," or implements a nondiscretionary mandate.

The High Court decided that the board was correct in ruling that the department's "comparability" regulations are not necessary to implement the law and thus do not pass these tests.

"The statute requires equivalence the maximum extent practicable'--in total per-pupil expenditure, not in each separate element of educational cost," Justice Scalia wrote.

However, Justice Scalia's opinion decided the final issue in a narrower fashion, leaving open the possibility that another federally operated school could successfully avoid negotiating over proposals that could infringe on its budgetary authority.

In its decision, the labor-relations authority applied a standard that it had previously set for interpreting the budgetary-authority clause, which requires an agency to show that negotiating on a particular proposal would "result in significant4and unavoidable increases in cost not affected by compensating benefits" to avoid bargaining.

Because the Army did not challenge this standard, Justice Scalia wrote, the Court did not have to decide whether it is appropriate.

Moreover, he said, because the Army offered no evidence to support its contention that a 13.5 percent salary increase would necessarily result in a "significant and unavoidable" increase in total costs, the labor-relations authority was correct in siding with the teachers on this point, and the High Court need not decide a dispute over the meaning of "compensating benefits."

The ruling also left open the question of whether potential costs must be "significant" in terms of the entire Army budget to bar negotiations, because neither party challenged the authority's decision to look only at Fort Stewart's budget.

In a separate, concurring opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that the authority has interpreted the "budgetary authority" provision too broadly, and that the statute "exempts from the duty to bargain only those proposals that would involve the union in the budget process itself."

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