The number of federal workers covered by union contracts has increased in the last two years even as the number of federal workers who belong to unions is declining.

More people are covered primarily because bargaining units, which include many nonmembers, are being expanded by unions and management.

Fewer feds belong to unions -- except in the Postal Service -- for the simple reason that most federal wmploye unions -- like their counterparts in the private sector -- aren't signing up new members as fast as they lose old members.

In some federal agencies this situation, which requires fewer union members to support services for a growing number of nonmembers, has produced some tensions. For that reason unions required to provide equal service to members and nonmembers sometimes take some short cuts.

Feds who demand union services but decline to pay union dues got some added protection the other day from the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The FLRA, which handles internal federal labor disputes, rapped the National Treasury Employees Union for devoting less time to nonmembers.

While the FLRA's decision is probably technically and legally correct, union members could argue that it isn't necessarily right.

This is what happened:

The NTEU has a contract with the Federal Election Commission. Among other things, the agency must provide the union with a list of cash award winners. People like to look at those lists to see if they are on them and, if they are not, to see who benefited from hanky-panky and office politics.

When the union got the list, it set up two time periods for people to call its office. NTEU members were given one time slot, and nonmembers were given another. Seems okay so far, but read on.

The union divided the workday into two parts, giving members the eight-hour period from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to make the inquiries, and nonmembers 15 minutes, from 5:30 to 5:45 p.m. to make their calls.

Because the union is required to provide services to nonmembers covered by its contract, it followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.

Nonunion types were incensed by the way the union divided up the day. Even NTEU officials admit, in retrospect, that their action may have been a little heavy-handed. But union leaders and union members sometimes get tired of so-called free riders reaping the rewards that the union folks won with their time, money and activity.

The case of the eight-hour union day versus the 15-minute nonunion day went to the FLRA. The agency said the union should have known better, and done better, and it issued a reminder to all unions that employes covered by contracts must get equal treatment, whether they hold a union card or not.