Seniority and equal opportunity

Some of the most challenging times are those when rights, legislated or perceived, of different segments of society appear to be in conflict. This is such a time in the United States, particularly in the workplace. Blacks, women, and young workers are all demanding entry into the economic system. Older workers seek to remain in it. Minorities and women seek special assistance to make up for past discrimination; white males, especially the unionized, push back - also on grounds of fairness.

Yet out of today's challenges, as with those of any other time, can come an adjustment that brings greater equity to all segments of society. The perspectives and leadership of minorities and women make distinctive contributions to a nation with unmet needs plentiful enough to employ all.

A major American requirement now is to gear national policy so as to create jobs in sufficient numbers to reduce unemployment and end the perception of conflict. Results over the past 12 months are encouraging: Buoyed by recovery, American industry created more than 4 million new jobs. The challenges to continuing this rate of increase are formidable, however, and should not be minimized.

The US must also improve substantially its public educational system, so that today's students are adequately educated to hold tomorrow's jobs. Most positions will require people adept at reading, thinking, and dealing with technology. Blue-collar jobs that the undereducated can fill will continue to decline.

For today, the area of contention is affirmative action vs. the seniority system. The US Supreme Court has now ruled that when economic hard times force layoffs in public agencies, the seniority system takes precedence. The last hired are to be the first fired, even though those may be minorities or women who have obtained their jobs through affirmative action. The decision does not deal directly with affirmative action in any other form, such as hiring or promotion.

Ironically, this ruling comes as both minorities and women are making significant advances in the workplace. And when they, and older Americans, are becoming stronger politically. Yet given the high unemployment rates of blacks, and the continued disparities in salary between men and women, enormous progress remains to be made in society - whatever the court's decision - to see that both groups attain their rightful place.

Distressing as it is to see jobs taken from people who have been historically disadvantaged, many Americans would approve of the Supreme Court's decision in this case, on grounds it is inequitable to penalize blameless people who have been in the job longer. We concur.

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