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Justices Agree To Consider Question Of Shielding Minorities From Layoffs

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Washington--In a move that could affect court orders in several cities to preserve jobs for minority teachers at a time of widespread layoffs, the U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to decide whether a state's "last hired, first fired" laws may be bypassed in order to protect minorities' jobs.

At the request of Boston's police and firefighters' unions and the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission, the Court decided to review an appeal of a federal judge's 1981 order that the city lay off its policemen and firefighters on the basis of race. Massachusetts' civil-service law, however, requires that layoffs be based on seniority.

The Court's decision to hear the case, Boston Firefighters Union v. Boston naacp (No. 82-185), surprised teachers' representatives because the Justices last month refused to hear a nearly identical appeal by the Boston Teachers Union.

"We are pleased that the Court has agreed to hear the case," said Elizabeth A. McPike, director of field services for the American Federation of Teachers (aft). "The two cases are very similar in their salient features."

The aft had joined its Boston affiliate in arguing that the constitutional and contractual rights of white teachers were violated when the city was ordered by a federal judge last year to retain black teachers when its school system furloughed over 1,000 classroom instructors.

The aft has already filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it either to reverse its decision not to hear that case (Local 66, Boston Teachers Union v. Boston School Committee) or to delay its decision on whether to hear that case until it rules on the appeal by the Boston police and firefighters' unions.

'Basic Issues'

"The firefighters' case is very important," said Robert H. Chanin, general counsel to the National Education Association (nea). "The Court is going to have to decide the same basic issue in both cases." The nea has not yet decided whether it will involve itself in the case, Mr. Chanin said.

Teachers' unions in three other cities--Kalamazoo, Mich., Buffalo, N.Y., and Springfield, Ill.--are also appealing school-desegregation orders requiring layoffs on the basis of race instead of seniority. Union lawyers say a decision in the Boston municipal-workers case could affect those appeals as well.

As a result of the 1980 passage of Proposition 2, which placed a statewide limit on property taxes, Boston suffered a severe fiscal crisis last year and was forced to lay off hundreds of policemen and firefighters.

Minority members of the uniformed forces, frequently hired under affirmative-action programs, often have less seniority than their white colleagues.

In Boston, layoffs by seniority would have resulted in the furloughing of roughly half of the black and Hispanic employees in both departments, undermining a decade-long federal-court effort to integrate the forces.

In 1972, blacks and Hispanics re-presented less than 1 percent of the fire department and 2.3 percent of the police force; in 1981, they represented 14.7 percent of the fire department and 11.7 percent of the police force.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Caffrey ordered that race play a role in layoff decisions in order to preserve those gains.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld Judge Caffrey's order.

Lost Seniority

The senior white policemen and firefighters who were furloughed, but have since been reinstated, are appealing to the Supreme Court for back pay and lost seniority on the grounds that Judge Caffrey lacked the authority to overturn the state's civil-service law requiring that lay-offs be determined by seniority. If the Court overturns the appellate court's ruling on the narrow grounds that Judge Caffrey's order violates the state civil-service law, it may not apply to the Boston teachers' case, in which a federal judge overruled the seniority provision in a collective-bargaining agreement rather than a state law.

However, Mr. Chanin of the nea said that the Court is more likely to decide the case on the broader grounds of whether or not Judge Caffrey's order violates the constitutional rights of white employees by denying their equal-protection rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

If so, the Court's decision could be applied to the Boston, Springfield, and Kalamazoo teacher cases, Mr. Chanin said.

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