By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
It may not be obvious, but the point of seniority rights in union contracts is not to give workers with seniority an advantage over their co-workers. Seniority rights are meant to promote co-worker solidarity and create a more dignified workplace for all. When promotions, layoffs, and choice of work assignment are driven by seniority in a workplace, there’s less potential for management favoritism, and thus less incentive for workers to curry favor with bosses or badmouth coworkers to management.
But a contract is only as good as its enforcement.
In November 2012, the County Clerk’s office in Clark County, Washington, passed over a senior employee, Melissa McLachlan, and gave a sought-after promotion to a less-qualified worker whom she herself had trained. McLachlan immediately called Maureen Colvin, a union business representative at Vancouver-headquartered Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 11, to file a grievance. Colvin investigated, and working with Katelyn Oldham of Tedesco Law Group, put together a case when the grievance went to arbitration.
A seniority preference clause curbs an employer’s ability to make hiring decisions in an arbitrary manner”— arbitrator Katrina Boedecker
McLachlan started at Clark County in 1988. By 2012, she was the most senior “judicial proceedings specialist” in her department, and she was the one routinely asked to train new hires. When a job as senior court assistant opened up, several supervisors encouraged her to apply. She submitted an application and cover letter, took a skills test and a practical exam, and received 91 percent, the highest test score among seven applicants. She was even asked to fill in several times as a senior court assistant.
But none of that mattered, County HR told arbitrator Katrina Boedecker, because all those things were treated as “pass/fail.” The only part of the hiring process where applicants were ranked against each other was an oral interview, scored by a four-person panel of coworkers.
McLachlan had been uncomfortable during that interview, in which panelists took turns asking questions gathered from the Internet about “leadership.” But they weren’t making eye contact, or asking followup questions.
The panelists had signed a pledge that they would not be biased for or against any applicant. But one was the best friend of another applicant, and gave that person the top rating. Another had a relative who’d had a legal dispute with McLachlan over some construction work. A third panelist had encouraged another applicant to apply, and gave that person the top rating, and McLachlan a much lower score.
McLachlan was told by a manager that she lost the promotion because of her interview scores, even though she had the most experience and had scored the highest on the test. The promotion instead went to a coworker McLachlan had trained, who’d been at the County since 2008, who’d listed less than half McLachlan’s skills on a skill list, had never trained a coworker, and whose sole leadership experience was organizing volunteers during a college clothing drive.
Arbitrator Boedecker held a hearing Sept. 6 in Vancouver, and on Dec. 13 found in favor of the union, ordering the county to give McLachlan the promotion, pay the union’s legal fees, and restore any pay and benefits McLachlan had lost since the day she was passed over.
“Seniority is a much cherished right of union members,” Boedecker wrote. “A seniority preference clause curbs an employer’s ability to make hiring decisions in an arbitrary manner … [and] allows workers to gain job security rights based on length of service rather than favoritism.”
“The employer did not rebut the union’s record that McLachlan was superior … in qualifications , knowledge , skills and abilities,” Boedecker concluded. “It merely stood on its theory that it could rank the applicants solely on their interview scores. The plain language of [the union contract] does not support this theory.”
[READ THE ENTIRE ARBITRATOR’S RULING HERE.]