The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, has allowed schoolteachers at the Fort Stewart, Ga., Army base to bargain over pay, opening the way for as many as 100,000 other federal workers to seek the same rights.

The high court Tuesday affirmed an appeals court decision requiring the Defense Department to negotiate with the Fort Stewart Association of Educators, which had asked for a 13.5 percent salary increase.

Most of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers are prohibited from negotiating over salaries, which are set by law in the General Schedule. But about 40 categories of employees, including schoolteachers, are not covered by the General Schedule or other salary-setting statutes.

Federal law requires an agency to bargain with labor organizations over "conditions" of employment, unless they are set by law or regulation. The Supreme Court rejected the Justice Department's argument that wages are not a condition of employment. "Wages are the quintessential prerequisite to accepting employment," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court.

"While we are flattered by the unanimous decision, the government's position that wages are not a condition of employment was absurd on its face," said Richard Hirn, attorney for the teachers. The ruling was one of the first federal union victories before the Supreme Court, he said.

The government also has long contended that bargaining over pay would infringe on management's right to "determine the agency's budget."

The court said the Army had provided no evidence that the teachers' requests would infringe on management's rights, and had failed even to list "its current total teachers' salaries." It upheld a ruling of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), the federal workplace equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board.

William E. Persina, FLRA solicitor, said other workers whose pay is not set by law or regulation include employees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., teachers in military schools overseas, civilian faculty at the military academies, civilian naval mariners, and workers in what are called "non-appropriated funds instrumentalities" -- chiefly military commissaries.

As many as 75,000 individuals may be covered by the non-appropriated funds category, Persina said.

"This is an important case for employees who work for agencies that have discretion over pay," said Gregory O'Duden, director of litigation for the National Treasury Employees Union. "We hope that these {agencies} will serve as demonstration projects to show Congress that it is possible for federal workers to bargain over pay without the sky falling in."

A Justice Department attorney said that although the court ruling clearly gives teachers at domestic military bases the right to bargain over pay, other workers such as those at the NRC are covered by different laws. The government is in a "much stronger position" to block bargaining over pay at other agencies, the attorney said.