In a decision that could be costly to unions, the Federal Labor Relations Authority has ruled that federal agencies aren't required to bargain with unions about paying the salaries of employes conducting certain kinds of union business.

Some agencies now pay 100 percent of the salaries of their employes who are union officials and help negotiate contracts and represent employes in grievances. Although executive branch agencies don't negotiate wages or hours with workers, they do make contract agreements with unions designated as employe bargaining agents over things like work assignments, promotion rules and some working conditions. More than half the 2.6 million civil servants are covered by union labor agreements, but not all those covered belong to unions.

The decision by the FLRA -- a three-member independent regulatory body that handles internal government labor-management disputes -- does not change the requirement that agencies bargain with unions over full payment of salaries to employe union officials involved in contract talks or contract enforcement activities. What it does, however, is give agencies the right to refuse to bargain over paying official time for union-related activities (other than actual contract talks) where the agency believes it would interfere with its mission. Unions could still appeal an agency's refusal to bargain over so-called official time. But that would be costly and time consuming to the unions, which in many cases are hard pressed financially because membership is down.

FLRA's ruling Monday involved the American Federation of Government Employees Union Council at the big Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

AFGE had asked the Air Force to negotiate over the issue of official time for union members involved in representing employes. The Air Force refused on grounds that paying employes to do union business, rather than their government jobs, would be harmful to the Air Force mission. AFGE appealed the case to the FLRA.

Union President Kenneth Blaylock said the ruling could also harm the government because it "undercuts the union's ability to have well-trained employe representatives at the work site." He said AFGE will appeal the decision.

In many cases the government finds it helpful to pay employes to do full-time union business, including trouble-shooting and low level settlement of grievances.

There have also been a number of horror stories in the past -- involving union officials at the Labor Department here and with the Air Force in California -- who spent years on the federal payroll doing union work instead of their federal jobs.

In 1980 the FLRA ruled that federal agencies could pay for travel and expenses -- in addition to salaries -- of employes who are union officials who travel for contract talks. The government appealed that decision and it was overturned, on a 9-0 vote, by the Supreme Court, which said the government was not required to pay travel and per diem for union officials.