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N.E.A. Supports Affirmative Action Over Seniority in Supreme Court Brief

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The National Education Association (nea) this week broke with traditional union philosophy and the sentiment of many of its 1.6-million members and filed a brief supporting affirmative action in a reverse-discrimination suit now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the case, Boston Firefighters Union v. Boston naacp, white policemen and firemen are challenging a federal judge's 1981 order that the city lay them off during a fiscal crisis in order to preserve the jobs of minority colleagues with less seniority.

The suit is of interest to teachers' unions because they consider its issues nearly identical to those of a reverse-discrimination suit, filed recently by white Boston teachers affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (aft), that the Court refused to hear.

Seniority Principle

Robert H. Chanin, the nea's general counsel, said the organization's decision to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Boston naacp's defense of the court-ordered affirmative-action plan was "absolutely not a rejection of the seniority principle."

"We support seniority as a basic collective-bargaining principle," Mr. Chanin said. "But for many years we have also been committed to affirmative action in hiring, promotion, and layoffs. We have been up front and vocal in our support of it. The two concepts have collided here. We feel that in a few cases seniority must give way to other important principles."

Mr. Chanin denied that the nea's move is related to the current stance of the aft, which strongly backs the seniority principle. The aft aided its Boston affiliate in its recent unsuccessful legal challenge of a federal-court order in 1981 requiring the retention of black teachers when the city's school system furloughed over 1,000 classroom instructors.

"If politics instead of organizational integrity were the intention," Mr. Chanin said, "we would have been better off staying out of the case. The nea has been trying to establish itself as a labor union and there are some within the nea who feel that coming out in favor of affirmative action will hurt our credibility with the labor movement."

"My expectation is that the aft will paint with a broad brush: 'The nea is against seniority,"' Mr. Chanin said.

"We strongly support affirmative action," said Elizabeth A. Pike, director of field services for the aft "But it is a terrible distortion of the concept when teachers--or any employee--with 10 to 15 years' tenure can lose their jobs because they don't fit a certain racial quota."

"And yet," she continued, "if the nea position prevails, that is exactly what can happen in numerous school districts across the country, just as it has already happened in Boston. The aft strongly believes in protecting the integrity of racially neutral seniority systems; the nea apparently does not."

Supporting Massachusetts Law

The aft, through the afl-cio, its parent organization, recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of the Massachusetts seniority law.

The senior white policemen and firefighters who were furloughed, but who have since been reinstated, are appealing to the Court for back pay and lost seniority. They contend that U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Caffrey lacked the authority to overturn Massachusetts' civil-service law requiring that layoffs be determined by seniority.

Mr. Chanin said the Court is likely to decide the case on the grounds of whether Judge Caffrey's order violates the equal-protection rights of white employees, which are guaranteed under the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

If so, the Court's decision could be applied to cases in four cities--Boston, Kalamazoo, Mich., Buffalo, and Springfield, Ill.--where teachers' unions are appealing school-desegregation orders requiring layoffs on the basis of race instead of seniority.

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