Two decades of affirmative action in the United States are squarely on the line. The resolution of cases now in the federal courts, including a Boston police and firefighters employment dispute being decided by the US Supreme Court, could sharply change the course of civil-rights policy in the jobs field.
Among the issues: civil-service and union seniority practices vs. prescribed remedies for past discrimination against blacks and others.
Also surfacing is an underlying question: Can the civil-rights job gains for minorities in the 1960s and 1970s withstand the economic pressures of the 1980s?
The Boston case and another before the Fifth Circuit, US Court of Appeals in New Orleans seem to be clear tests of the Reagan administration's stance in the jobs field. That stance centers on these concepts: (1) an end to hiring or promotion quotas based on race; and (2) special treatment only for ''identifiable victims'' of discrimination.
This policy marks a turnaround from directions set by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. It diverges from the Justice Department's mid-1970s position in Boston, where the federal government ordered hiring goals for blacks and others who were underre-presented on police and fire forces.
Heard last week by the high court, the Boston case stemmed from a 1981 lower court order that seniority be shelved in favor of racial balance when police and fire layoffs occurred.
The US District Court bypassed ''last hired, first fired'' civil-service and union policies and upheld affirmative action. Among 400 layoffs, 176 blacks and Hispanics kept their jobs while the same number of higher-seniority whites lost theirs.
Although those laid off were later reinstated when the debt-ridden city managed to get additional salary funds, police and fire unions appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. The unions' aim was to erase the lower-court ruling and pave the way for recouping $1.5 million in back pay for those furloughed.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the US Justice Department argued that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (banning job discrimination) protects only those who are actually victimized by discrimination - not a general class (namely blacks).
In support of the district court ruling, civil-rights lawyer James Ditmar said the court did not need ''nose-counting proof of individual victimization'' to protect minority gains in police and fire slots.
The high court's disposition of the Boston case should come by summer. However, the justices could evade the issue by declaring the case moot, since the fired whites have since been reinstated.
Observers say this would constitute a victory of sorts for minorities, reinforce affirmative action, and rebuff new tacks being taken by the Reagan administration.
On the other hand, a ruling for white police and firefighters, some say, would effectively mothball over 20 years of civil-rights gains in the jobs field.
Regardless, the issue itself will continue to be hotly disputed. Other metropolitan areas, forced by the economy to tighten their fiscal belts, are almost certain to face similar layoff dilemmas - with serious consequences for affirmative action, job security, and seniority.
Meanwhile, some say they believe that the New Orleans case may provide an even clearer test than Boston for the Reagan administration's jobs philosophy.
Under a consent decree, that city's police department agreed to promote one black for every white promoted until half of its supervisory positions are held by minorities. New Orleans is 55 percent black.
The Justice Department actively joined white officers in opposing the decree, taking a firm stand against promotion quotas and timetables - and arguing (as it has in the Boston case) that only ''identifiable'' blacks who can prove they have been discriminated against should be given consideration.