The taxpayers are out $2.75 for a shave, plus thousands of dollars in salaries and expenses because the beard-removal edict of one of Uncle Sam's supervisors went against the grain and wound up, as little things in government sometimes do, as a costly, time-consuming federal case.

Two summers ago a vacationing Customs inspector returned to his baggage-poking job at Honolulu International Airport with the beginnings of a beard. His boss didn't cotton to the facial hair. He told the inspector to move to another assignment where he would not brush up against the public. The employe did. But he was told later that day he could either show up next morning cleanshaven or stay home and watch his beard grow. The inspector hustled off to the nearest barber (this is where the $2.75 expenditure comes in). He reported for work next morning. But not before calling his shop steward.

Federal unions cannot bargain over wages, hours, insurance, retirement, holidays, etc. So they must look elsewhere for negotiating ground. Personal appearance is often one of the few remaining negotiable items.

The National Treasury Employees Union took the case. It said its contract with the Customs Service stated that people had to be presentable, but had no taboo against well-groomed beards. The government thundered back that it is a known fact that Orientals fear beard-wearing men in uniform, and that since most of the folks passing through the Honolulu airport are of Asian descent, a bearded Customs official could cause innocent tourists to act like dope smugglers, causing search delays and problems!

NTEU said, in effect, the assumption that Orientals fear beards is a basketload of manure. Both sides produced expert witnesses -- in Oriental customs, beard phobias and the like -- to prove that the other side was wrong. Customs called in the consuls general of Thailand and Japan to uphold their contention that Orientals like their inspectors cleanshaven. The union found three specialists in Asian culture who assured that Asians do not break into a sweat when they see beards. Time passed.

To make a long, expensive story shorter than the 11 months it took to resolve it, an arbitrator ruled that the man should have been allowed to keep his beard absent specific notification or contract language against hairy chins. He ordered the government to reimburse the man for the cost of the $2.75 shave. But he turned down the union request that the government be made to pay attorneys' fees.

One could say Uncle Sam got shaved, but not clipped. All of this, of course, cost the government (that is you) and the union a pile of money. It also shows that when you tell the government and unions to make like General Motors vs. the Teamsters but not get into things like strikes, wages and fringe benefits, they will find something to fight about even if it doesn't seem all that important.