Seniority rules - but it shouldn't

Anyone who goes to a Police or Rolling Stones concert nowadays doesn't do so because those bands have been around the longest. Concertgoers still happen to like their music and have a choice: They like what they see and hear and choose to buy the tickets and music. Fans, one might say, see "merit" in the music and choose accordingly.

Contrast that with how striking Canadian Union of Public Employees locals in Vancouver appear to be demanding an end to merit in promotions, transfers and scheduling. Customers -- the taxpaying public and city officials who serve them -- must simply pay up and have no say in who gets to do what work other than time on the job.

Beyond the absurdity of Vancouver being forced to kill off merit as if skills and performance don't matter, polls over the years show that even a majority chunk of unionized employees don't like how union leaders favour seniority over merit, to say nothing of the public, which also wants merit used as the critical factor in workplace decisions.

But CUPE's locals have targeted merit; it's one of their many demands before they'll agree to return to work.

Local 15 wants seniority to govern promotions and transfers. Locals 15 and 391 want seniority rights applied to auxiliary employees; their scheduling and extra hours would be awarded according to a union pecking order instead of individual skills and results.

Local 1004 wants any disciplinary action removed from a personnel file after 36 months, as if past actions might not well predict future actions versus another unionized employee with a clean or cleaner performance record when serving taxpayers.

In attempting to bury merit beneath restrictive union seniority rules, CUPE is offside with the preferences of most Canadians and very possibly, the Vancouver workers forced to be CUPE members as a condition of employment under the various collective agreements.

In 2003, LabourWatch asked Leger Marketing to find out the views of Canadians on such matters. Leger found that 83 per cent of Canadians surveyed thought employee merit and performance should be more important in guiding the decision of an employer about promotions; only 14 per cent thought the seniority of an employee should be the decisive factor.

But here is the kicker in the poll: Among then unionized Canadians, 77 per cent thought merit should trump seniority.

Among formerly unionized employees, that figure jumped higher still; 87 per cent thought employee merit and performance should rank above length of service for a promotion.

Similarly, while Canadians were willing to consider a person's career length a bit more when it came to layoffs (24 per cent thought that factor should count the most when layoffs occur), fully 71 per cent still thought employee performance and merit should be the most important factor in deciding who should be laid off.

Here's another kicker for CUPE leaders: Even a majority of the currently unionized wanted merit over seniority!

In my discussions with pollsters across the country who do surveys for union leaders, the pollsters noted that union leaders often ignore the wishes of the employees they represent -- thus the wishes of those whose dues paid for the poll.

The Canadian Labour Congress, of which CUPE is a member, conducted its own poll in 2003, in part on why someone would or would not want to join a union.

Poll results revealed that 38 per cent of unionized respondents said they would very likely not vote for a union because of the presence of seniority provisions; 44 per cent of non-union respondents felt the same way about why they would be less likely to vote for union representation.

That most disagree with CUPE's anti-merit position should come as no surprise. Plenty of us have worked in environments where some colleague has been assigned work or promoted because of company connections or union seniority rules and not necessarily because they were the most qualified.

No one wants employees who have served long periods of time to be moved out their positions inappropriately. But layoffs and terminations are going to be less of an issue than ever because of a labour shortage and retiring baby boomers.

But most people quite reasonably don't like to see others get work, be promoted (and themselves held back) because of union rules or other factors unrelated to skills and results.

The City of Vancouver represents about 400,000 taxpayers in this dispute; CUPE represents 6,000 government workers. But when CUPE opposes merit as a principle in promotion, it is not likely representing even a majority of them with these demands.

John Mortimer is president of the non-profit Canadian LabourWatch Association and a Vancouver taxpayer.


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