Unions and seniority


in Economics, Politics

Given the very high level of interest people have had in this previous discussion of the OC Transpo strike and unions in general (78 comments so far), it seemed worth initiating a second discussion on the matter. Since the union is saying that the major purpose of this strike is to retain the right to have bus routes assigned on the basis of seniority, the general issue of seniority and unions seems to be worth considering.

There do seem to be some valid reasons for supporting higher pay and greater privileges for more senior individuals. Among those are the issue of experience, which those who are senior to an organization can be expected to have in greater amounts, and perhaps the facilitation of standard lifestyle transitions: from youth to adult life, and from that to retirement.

At the same time, there seem to be valid reasons to oppose perks based on seniority. In situations where something worth rewarding is often correlated with seniority, but can be measured easily, it seems to make sense to measure and reward it directly. That way, rather than assuming that ten years on the job makes you more capable, you can reward those who actually demonstrate capability in a day-to-day manner. Another argument is that basing a large share of pay and benefits on seniority rewards the mediocre at the expense of the excellent. Those who are very active and engaged get paid no better than those who perform the minimum obligations of the job. Aside from providing a disincentive for talented people to be part of the organization, that seems basically unfair.

I am not disputing the freedom of unions and employers to negotiate whatever terms seem best to them. I am simply seeking to open a discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of favouring seniority: from the perspective of union members, management, and those who consume the products of services the union members and management provide.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon December 15, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Seniority is one of the oldest forms of oppression. People who have been part of some chapter or guild of discipline for a long time have exaggerated memories of what it took for them to become members. They want newcomers to live up to these standards.

Teachers in Greek philosophy schools were probably suffering from these lapses of memory thousands of years ago.

Tristan December 15, 2008 at 10:45 pm

I think it makes sense that seniority should give a modicum of job security, because if it doesn’t it’s difficult for people to make long term financial decisions. In our society money exists only insofar as people borrow it, so, from that, it would make sense to set up employment to enable people to go into debt.

It is quite disturbing, however, to think that if every debt was repayed all money would cease to exist.

R.K. December 16, 2008 at 12:10 am

In general, I feel that social safety nets are important. The cost may be annoying when you are a high-flyer, but few people are high-flyers forever. Furthermore, those who actually manage to be high performers for their whole lives aren’t in a strong position to complain about how society is structured.

Seniority may encourage some degree of mediocrity, but a good life is ultimately more important than doing good work.

Tristan December 16, 2008 at 2:43 am

I’d like to distinguish between two kinds of job security. The first puts language in the collective agreement which prevents someones job for being eliminated, and the layoff of employees for reasons that have no connection with their job performance. The second is when it is virtually impossible to dismiss bad employees because the union is willing to pay high price lawyers to exploit already very employee-biased dismissal legislation, which results in, for example, it being impossible to fire horrid school teachers.

Milan December 16, 2008 at 8:50 am

The seniority system for school teachers has certainly disappointed me from time to time.

I have seen great new teachers demoted or sent to different schools, while very mediocre older teachers are kept on.

. December 16, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Letter to the ATU Local 279 Executive providing clarification on Redefinition of Work (PDF)
(dated Dec. 13)

“* What’s wrong with the way Operators book their work today?
* What does management propose to change?
* Is that “block booking”?
* Is management proposing to take away the Operators’ seniority rights?”

Sasha December 18, 2008 at 11:35 am

Let me assure you, it’s not all that difficult to have a teacher fired. Certainly the College of Teachers has made well and sure of that (although it is fairly recent, so this may be new, they regularly cancel certificates, which then bars someone from teaching).

Milan, you say “you can reward those who actually demonstrate capability in a day-to-day manner.” My difficulty with that it how near impossible it is to objectively assess capability. No one measure can be reliable for everyone in any job. Hence, seniority is used. It may not be perfect, but it’s far better than the outrageous nepotism I see going on whenever a matter isn’t governed by seniority. Another point to keep in mind is retention. The young and excellent know that they will reap the rewards if they stick it out. Since people do get better at things over time, it seems sensible to encourage young people to work in the field for a substantial amount of time.

I know the young often chafe at the idea of seniority, I have my moments too, but I also know that down the road, when I’m no longer among the young and popular teachers, I’ll be glad for the protection – knowing that I won’t just be shoved out of my classroom because another young, popular one comes along. And I expect to be a better teacher then than I am today, simply by virtue of experience.

Oleh December 19, 2008 at 7:06 am

I am old enough to be the beneficiary of seniority. However, I also question the importance placed on seniority. I am concerned that it serves to protect mediocrity.

As a parent I most clearly saw this with teachers. My wife and I would make efforts to avoid our children being placed with mediocre teachers. Often the strength or medicority of the teachers was well known. However the mediocre teachers were protected by seniority.

I was in intrigued by Sasha’s comment “Let me assure you, it’s not all that difficult to have a teacher fired. Certainly the College of Teachers has made well and sure of that (although it is fairly recent, so this may be new, they regularly cancel certificates, which then bars someone from teaching).”

I contacted the College of Teachers. The College oversees the 70,000 educators in the province. The representative of the College confirmed that a teacher can theoretically have the his/her certificate cancelled for incompetence. But I was told this is very rare and unnecessary because incompetency is avoided by the initial training that teachers receive when they are starting out.

I was told that last year no teacher’s certificate was cancelled for last year for incompetence.

My experience as a parent of three who have gone through between them 39 years of public schools is that seniority can shelter and protect the incompetent teacher.

This is unfortunate because teaching is a wonderful and critically important profession. The best teachers have fostered the best in our children. I would prefer a system which fostered the best teachers and not the most senior.

Magictofu December 19, 2008 at 7:26 am

How should we balance the need for competency at the societal level with the need for stability and economic safety at the individual level?

Is a mix of education, professional orders and seniority the proper answer?

ToryC December 19, 2008 at 9:30 am

Is seniority important in private school systems, for promotions and such?

If not, what systems do they use to evaluate teacher performance?

Tristan December 19, 2008 at 10:34 am

Incompetency is not always avoided in intitial training because teaching highschool is not mostly about academic competency, it is about social competency – being able to gain the respect of students, and being able to cope with difficult groups of students.

From my personal contact with administrators, I certainly have been under the appearance that it is very difficult to dismiss professors who are socially incompetent, and this confirmed my own experience.

. June 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Taking pride in your work

SIR – Schumpeter ruminated on the survival of trade unions in the age of austerity (June 5th). One way that unions could become more relevant would be if they, rather than their employers, took responsibility for the quality of workers’ output. Good employees resist unions because they do not want to work with loafers earning the same pay, or to have a shop steward telling them to “slow down”. If unions became highly selective, weeding out the incompetents and malcontents, they could offer employers the best trained, most-efficient workers available, for higher pay.

Employers would benefit by knowing that unions were protecting them from lazy, unqualified employees and that more jobs would be finished properly and on time.

David Hagan
Grover Beach, California

. October 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm

“That truth, recognised by anyone who has spent even a few hours in, say, a KIPP charter school, is an inconvenient one to the teachers’ unions, which the film rightly identifies as a big chunk of kryptonite standing in the way of a dramatic rescue for the children of America. For example, the film features efforts to reform the school system in Washington, DC, led by Adrian Fenty, the mayor, and Michelle Rhee, his combative schools chief, including a scene where Ms Rhee’s offer to double salaries for teachers in exchange for them giving up tenure and accepting “merit pay” (performance-related wages) is rejected by the unions. Right on cue for the launch of the film, Mr Fenty has just lost his local Democratic Party primary to a more union-friendly rival, so Ms Rhee may well be leaving. The $1m spent during the campaign by the American Federation of Teachers played a crucial role in Mr Fenty’s defeat.

The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones, to fire the worst performers, and to shut down schools that consistently fail to deliver a decent education. This, coupled with underfunding in poor areas, has resulted in a shortage of good schools; so the few that are worth getting into are hugely oversubscribed, with places allocated by the public lotteries which provide the grim climax to the movie. Ms Rhee upset the unions by refusing to accept all this, closing dozens of schools and firing 1,000 teachers, including the head of her own children’s school.

Perhaps the most important thing about “Waiting for Superman” is that it is liberal, Al Gore-friendly types who are highlighting the fact that the teachers’ unions are putting their worst-performing members before the interests of America’s children.”

. October 22, 2010 at 3:06 pm

All this involved cutting the number of fire officers, who, Mr McGuirk realised, were underemployed for long periods during their shifts. Anyway, fewer fires required fewer rescuers. Although no one was made redundant involuntarily, in 2006 the fire-brigade union called a strike. Protesters dubbed the fire chief “McJerk”; 2,000 of them walked through Liverpool carrying banners with slogans such as “I hate McGuirk”.

Ironically, it was soon clear that the 200 officers who stayed at work could run the service at full capacity. “I told the local press they would never notice there was a strike,” says Mr McGuirk. “It’s not my job to be popular, it’s to deliver.” The strike was defeated in a month.

. October 25, 2010 at 12:03 pm

SIR – It is true that teachers’ unions protect bad teachers from being fired and that reform is needed (“Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”, October 2nd). However, unions also protect effective teachers from arbitrary punishment by school administrators who may be opposed to innovative ideas that come from the teaching staff. Furthermore charter schools are not the panacea that you and some school reformers claim. Charter schools such as KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone do a wonderful job of educating poor children in rough areas, but the vast majority are no more effective than a typical public school. And one of the best charter-school companies, Green Dot, which runs schools in Los Angeles and New York City, has a teaching staff that is fully unionised. American schools are in desperate need of improvement, but the assertion that unions are uniformly bad and non-unionised charter schools are always good is too simplistic.

Shane Updike

. January 6, 2011 at 11:02 pm

B.C. teacher merit pay idea gets low marks

Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon’s proposal of merit pay for teachers is not going over with at least one education expert, nor with some of Falcon’s rival leadership candidates.

Falcon announced Tuesday that as premier, he would institute a system of monetary incentives for teachers who get the best performance out of their students.

“I want to make sure we are unafraid to say to those teachers we recognize what you’re doing, we reward what you’re doing,” he said.

But merit pay for teachers doesn’t guarantee better schooling, according to Dan Laitsch, a professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

“There is no conclusive evidence that merit pay would have any effect on student outcome,” said Laitsch.

. February 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

The public sector accounts for about 20 per cent of all workers in Canada, with 292,000 federal employees and 282,000 provincial ones.

According to Grubel, “the existing gap is due entirely to the higher levels of unionization of the public sector, and to the disproportionate power the public sector unions have in raising the incomes of their members.” He explains that public sector workers have no competition in the private sector. In addition, politicians face serious consequences if strikes by public servants inconvenience the public.

It’s also a fact that unions can, and do, sponsor damaging public campaigns during elections against political parties that would rein in their wages and benefits.

Grubel blames the existing situation on politicians “who gave public sector employees the right to strike without making any provision to prevent the observed, inefficient and unfair outcome. Unions and their members simply and understandably have been taking advantage of the opportunities offered them by the politicians.”

oleh February 23, 2011 at 3:43 am

This additional article does point out a difference between public and private sector unions. I think there is less actual role for unions in the public sector for a number of reasons
1. Government employees already have good working conditions,
2. There employers are generally not as restrained in offering high incomes, because those employers do not have to maintain a profit.
3. Public sector employees often work in monopoly situations.

Therefore I see less purpose of unions in the public sector.

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