September 26 — 5:02 pm, 2013

When it comes to seniority, I’m sticking with the union

If the events of the last few years make anything clear, it’s that teachers need a strong union. 

The School Reform Commission — backed by the governor, the mayor, and self-appointed civic elites — has launched a full-scale attack on the living standards and professional status of teachers. The union, supported by significant community allies as well as other unions, is waging a campaign of resistance.   

A big target of the corporate reform agenda is the principle of seniority. I think that eliminating seniority would be the first step toward the reduction of teaching from a lifelong profession to a Peace Corps model favored by the likes of Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst, and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.

Seniority and solidarity

The seniority principle, bedrock to the culture of  American trade unionism, protects workers from arbitrary treatment. It also protects vulnerable workers, like women and seniors. And it provides some job security in a world ruled by cutthroat market forces.

Seniority promotes solidarity among workers as opposed to individualism. It is also objective and quantifiable. This is why most workers accept it as fair even if the consequences for them may be negative. Young workers know that one day they will be old workers. Without a fair standard, workers are reduced to competing with each other to win the boss’ favor.

In most school districts, seniority also determines pay scales through “step” increases tied to longevity. But the SRC wants to put aside the Pennsylvania school code provisions that base layoffs and any subsequent recalls on seniority. The union should categorically reject these attempts.

A guiding principle, not a dogma

At the same time, seniority should not be regarded as a dogma that never can be modified. Progressive trade unionists have favored modifying seniority in industries where pervasive racial or gender discrimination demanded affirmative action, for example.

Teachers’ unions, if they are to stand up for the needs of parents and students as well as their members, need to look at seniority-based practices that contribute to inequities in our schools. Historically, a transfer policy based solely on seniority is a case in point. When vacancies occur, senior teachers can exercise transfer rights to move to what they consider to be more desirable positions. Teachers tend to choose schools where they believe they will find better working conditions and more job satisfaction. Over the years, this has resulted in a high ratio of inexperienced to experienced teachers in low-performing, high-poverty schools, while magnet schools and schools in stable neighborhoods benefit.    

Universal site selection

But the answer to this situation is not universal site selection, the panacea of the reformers. With site selection, teachers with the most qualifications and experience will still tend to apply to the more successful schools with less challenging conditions. Instead, there should be more robust incentives for teachers to work in the neediest schools.

Most positions in Philadelphia are already awarded based on site selection and have been since the last contract was adopted. 

Site selection can be a positive instrument for creating a mission-driven school culture, but that prospect takes a gifted school leader who can share power and collaborate with school staff, a scarce commodity in our School District. And as far as I know, the District has done no analysis on the impact of site selection on school and student performance. Nor has it invested significantly in building up a cadre of effective school leaders.

Without the consent and active engagement of teachers and staff, site selection can become a personal employment agency of an ambitious principal. Before site selection was mandated, it was an option that the staff could both adopt and revoke. At my school, we both voted in and voted out site selection.   

Universal site selection would also mean that teachers at “turnaround” schools that are converted to Renaissance charters or Promise Academies would likely lose their jobs, not just their positions, as now is the case. Teachers at these schools who are not rehired or who choose not to apply at their old schools are treated as forced transfers and pick a new school before the voluntary transfers do so. With no seniority-based positions left, they will have no guarantee of a position. Principals may regard them as damaged goods.   

For these reasons, it makes sense for the PFT to reject universal site selection as it is now being presented. It should look at developing affirmative proposals that could increase recruitment and retention of experienced teachers at low-performing, high-poverty schools. Creating incentives in the form of extra support and increased compensation was tried in the “Restructured Schools” of a decade ago, but they were not very robust. A fresh look at this approach makes sense, but, of course, it would cost money.

The union is an ally of parents and students

The reformers characterize the defense of seniority as evidence that unions only care about their members and are indifferent to the needs of parents and students. I would argue that teacher job security should be a concern of everyone who cares about education. The downgrading of experience, academic qualifications and professional standards that is being promoted by the corporate reformers will have long-term, negative consequences for public education.  

As part of PCAPS, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has joined with parents, students and community to develop a common vision of high-quality schools for all children, to fight for a moratorium on school closings, and to demand full funding from Harrisburg and City Hall. Thousands of union members, from SEIU 32BJ and UNITE HERE!, as well as PFT, have come out in the streets in these fights. PFT members were also part of an effort to canvass neighborhoods, petitioning for funding and surveying parents’ views. This is evidence that the union understands the importance of building alliances with the broader community. 

Meanwhile, the reformers lobby and write op-eds about getting rid of seniority. One more reason I’m sticking with the union.

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and is on the steering committee of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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