Becky Corkill got laid off May 15. 

Corkill, 53, works for the Oregon Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union. She drove from her Klamath Falls home to the OEA's Portland headquarters last week pondering an irony. 

OEA has wielded its power in Salem to protect a fundamental principle in teachers' contracts: seniority. In Oregon, unlike in many states, when school districts lay off teachers, they must do so beginning with the teachers who are most junior.

But as Corkill learned last week, OEA doesn't apply the principle to its own staff.

"It's hypocritical," says Corkill, a 19-year employee. "I am appalled."

Seniority is a critical issue when school districts cut budgets, as many are currently doing. A senior teacher can earn twice what a beginning teacher makes. So districts facing layoffs must dismiss twice as many teachers to achieve the same savings.

Oregon is one of only 15 states that follow that practice. Others, including Illinois, which abandoned seniority last year, have moved to "merit-based" layoffs, in which principals try to keep their most able teachers, regardless of experience.

OEA executive director Richard Sanders says seniority equals effectiveness. “I believe in seniority,” Sanders says. 

But by laying off senior OEA employees last week, Sanders may have undermined the position he's staked out for tens of thousands of Oregon teachers.

Sanders says OEA needs to eliminate jobs in some of its 16 offices statewide.

"The reason positions are being eliminated has nothing to do with seniority," he says. "The final determination of who—if anybody—will lose their jobs hasn't been worked out yet."

Although Corkill and her colleagues are OEA employees, they are not OEA members. They belong to the National Staff Organization, which represents employees of unions nationwide. 

Corkill is president of OEA's Associate Staff Organization, representing about four dozen employees providing support services, as do members of another group, the Professional Services Organization. 

Last week, Sanders notified 20 employees—about one-quarter of the combined groups—they would be laid off to help OEA find $2.6 million in budget cuts. 

As teachers lose their jobs across the state, OEA loses dues-paying members. "OEA has lost almost 5,000 members over the last five years," Sanders wrote May 15. 

That makes OEA like a cash-strapped school district. But instead of cutting from the bottom, as his union forces districts to do, Sanders is cutting many of his most senior, expensive people. 

Corkill, who makes about $51,000 as an administrative assistant at an OEA local, says one laid off colleague has 30 years' experience, and another has 39.

OEA says it's eliminating positions regardless of when the person who holds that job joined OEA. Corkill says OEA is violating its contract with its staffing unions, denying laid-off workers preference when applying for open positions.

"OEA is a very large and powerful union," Corkill says. "We stand up for [teachers] every day, but a basic value that we stand up for for members of this organization is not being offered to us.”