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Seniority: of babies and bathwater

By Karen Wirsig

The Ontario government and the Toronto Star have done workers no favour this Labour Day season. You may have seen the op-ed and then the column printed in the paper that cast seniority as the devil and young people as natural supporters of rugged individualism. These pieces are responding to a provincial regulation that administrators believe forces them to hire from the top of a seniority list.

It’s worth unpacking the debate, and the real social issues it papers over.

Teachers in the Catholic boards were concerned about nepotistic hiring. They asked Queen’s Park to do something to stop the leg up that candidates related to trustees and school board administrators seemed to have in getting jobs.

Can we all agree that, wherever favouritism in hiring is happening, it’s a problem?

The mechanical solution the government came up with requires boards to create a new seniority list of occasional teachers from which new hires for permanent positions can be made. To fill a vacancy, the board must interview the top five qualified candidates on that new seniority list. In what might be an overly narrow reading of the new rules, one principal has argued he is limited from even looking at candidates with less seniority on that list. As well, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation is concerned this new seniority list creates unnecessary barriers to the new teachers who don’t get on the new list for technical reasons.

Seniority rules have a real value for all workers so it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. First off, they fit with the types of ongoing jobs you can build a career on… not precarious and short-term employment contracts that keep people constantly running the hamster wheel in order to eat and pay the rent. Second, they are generally only one among many of the objective measures used to hire, promote and assign people in a fair and transparent way. To make sure the boss’s nephew isn’t a shoo-in for the job.

People trying to find a job – and especially a first job – face a real uphill struggle. But that’s not because of seniority rules. It’s because there is a lack of job openings, especially for decent-paying jobs with long-term prospects and opportunities to use one’s creativity. At the same time, older workers are being pushed out of workplaces in favour of cheaper replacements in a more precarious situation. That’s precisely what we saw happening with the offshoring of IT work at the Royal Bank earlier this year. Employers that consider their employees “costs” rather than “humans” want to have their cake and eat it too: a more highly experienced and qualified workforce for dirt cheap prices.

Once we’ve been in a job for a couple of years or even a few months, most of us want to know that the boss can’t get rid of us arbitrarily and bring in someone purely because they are cheaper, related to him or her, or won’t ask questions.  Power is an important consideration in the workplace, and when this kind of stuff happens you know the boss has way too much power and individual workers are likely to feel isolated, and even suspicious or jealous of each other. Is this really how we want to live out our working lives? And is this really the frame of mind we want our teachers, or journalists, or nurses, or bus drivers to be in?

A good hiring process should always involve a proper job posting that outlines the true requirements of the job. The qualifications for those requirements must be measurable somehow. Once the employer, or hiring committee, determines who are the most qualified, they can look at other objective factors including seniority and employment equity. Hiring your nephew or your neighbour is easy. So is filling a vacancy from the top of a list. But there are no shortcuts to a fair process; good hiring takes a commitment of time and energy.

One final thing. We workers need to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by arguments cooked up in right-wing think tanks. There are probably as many definitions of merit as there are of happy. Reasonable seniority rules paired with fair and transparent hiring, promotion and firing practices ensure that all of the power in an organization doesn’t rest with the boss.

Karen Wirsig co-moderator of the MediaTech Commons and an organizer with the Canadian Media Guild. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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