When I was in college I studied labor history. We studied the development of unionism as an agency for change and protection in the workplace and then as a strong political force in both local and national politics. As unions developed in the various sectors of society certain fundamental concepts of unionism developed.
It is axiomatic that unions represent the best interests of their membership. When they don't they no longer have the legitimacy to be exclusive bargaining representatives. One of the concepts that has developed to protect all union members is seniority.
Seniority, simply put, provides special benefit to union members who have been members the longest. It provides a mechanism to protect members by ensuring that employer decisions are made in a fair, non-discriminatory way and without regard to union activity.
So important is seniority in organized labor that union officials are often given "super-seniority" to protect the union and the unit from arbitrary and discriminatory action by the employer.
Seniority works in a variety a ways. The most important is layoff seniority. Here, employees are laid-off in a way which prevents an employer from discriminating against individual workers. The UFT has not had a teacher layoff since my college days but there have been layoffs for paras and other titles much more recently.
In 2003, in a feeble effort to destroy the para title, the DOE decided to layoff large numbers of paras when the UFT allowed a no layoff provision to sunset. I can remember a meeting of almost 30 paras in the Rikers chapel in which the principal explained that there was nothing he could do but hope that the DOE would reverse its decision. Speaking on behalf of the UFT as the Chapter Leader I advised all the paras in my Chapter that the "no lay-off provision" was no longer in effect. I assured them that the layoff would be by seniority order and that any rehiring would also be done that way.
I had some difficulty getting a district-wide para seniority list but eventually obtained one. I made sure all of the layoffs were done properly and that paras were listed correctly.
To my surprise, when we returned at the start of the next school year, all of the paras were back to work in my school. The principal told me proudly that he had worked out a deal that allowed their return even though paras with higher seniority in other schools were not called back.
I was in an awful bind. How could I fight against the principal's deal when my Chapter clearly benefited from this discrimination? How could the Union approve the clear violation of seniority rules?
I did not have to live with the dilemma for long as within a couple of weeks the DOE reconsidered and hired back all of the laid off paras. I found out later there was no "deal." Rather the Union had decided not to do anything about it at that time. They were just happy that some of the paras were called back and were not willing to risk political capital on asserting a seniority right.
In hindsight it is now abundantly clear that the UFT has no concern for seniority because it has stopped acting like a Union for some time.
While layoffs, in this economy, seem unlikely (at least for teachers) seniority also plays an important part in most organized sectors in work assignment. The UFT, since its inception, jealously guarded seniority in work assignments including mounting a strike to protect it.
The seniority transfer system became an institutional mechanism to protect this right and while never perfectly implemented it clearly allowed some protection for senior teachers. The DOE developed ways around the seniority transfer system such as not listing all vacancies or working deals with the Union when new schools opened but on the whole the system provided a safety valve based on non-discriminatory criteria for teachers, who needed to move to another school for any reason or no reason at all.
Then along came our new contract and the eradication of seniority transfer and in its place the "open market." The "open market" couldn't fly in the face of historical and fundamental union values any more. It permits the wholesale discrimination against senior and other disliked teachers, Chapter Leaders or anyone else. No longer do teachers have a union-protected work assignment right on transfer.
At the time that the contract was ratified Randi and her union-paid supporters heralded the loss of the seniority transfer system as a great victory for the union. "No longer would less senior teachers be bumped" and "now all vacancies would be listed" were some of the arguments they made.
After a short time it became clear that not only was the "open market" a fraud but an underclass of absent teacher reservists would give the DOE what it wanted…unfettered discretion in teacher work assignments. Teachers could be moved around the system at the whim of administrators.
Whole districts reorganized, Bronx and Brooklyn High Schools closed and principals mostly fill vacancies with untenured Fellows. Where's the Union?
In a recent article published in Washington DC's CityPaper
our Union's spokesperson is quoted about the loss of the seniority transfer system, something they are contemplating in DC. The article ends, aptly:
Ron Davis, a spokesperson for the New York teachers' union, declined to say how happy his group has been with the new system but says the union has indeed moved on. "I'd have to say we have other concerns [now]," he says. "It would not be an ongoing bone of contention for the membership."