The Case For or Against Arbitration
Organization, not arbitration, is often the best way
to resolve grievances. Why? Arbitration can:
undermine organization ...
be dangerous in ways you never expected ...
... and be very expensive
Arbitration is often a gamble, too — with the outcome having
little to do with the merits of the case.
The Case Against Arbitration
The best place to settle
grievances is right where they began ... on the job. Relying on
arbitration can undermine your local union's strength and be
Arbitrate? Sometimes we’re forced to. But taking grievances to
arbitration can be expensive and dangerous. Why? Because, at best,
arbitration is a third party process that does little or nothing to
build union strength and, at worst, can set a bad precedent that will
haunt workers in many places for many years.
belief in rank-and-file unity, eagerness to arbitrate grievances can be
a danger signal that a local’s organizational strength is suffering. The
best place to settle a grievance has always been right where it began—on
the job. The boss should know that all grievances will be backed by a
unified and, if necessary, angry membership.
If very few
grievances are settled on the job or in the early stages of the
grievance procedure, then it may be time to take a good look at your
local’s ability to send a unified message to the boss. Instead of
building unity, arbitration can actually undermine organizational
it. Arbitration removes an issue from the workplace and it takes time.
Instead of reinforcing the idea that "we—all of us—are the
union," the attitude is developed that the union is some type of
insurance agency: ‘file a claim and see what happens.’
ill-considered decision to arbitrate can also turn into a disaster. With
the stroke of a pen, an arbitrator can undo hard-won contract
language—and, as many trade unionists have found out—what we lose in
arbitration we rarely recover in negotiation.
have considerable freedom to frame their decisions and the outcome may
be completely unexpected or irrational. In one case, an arbitrator ruled
the company was wrong—but he had developed such a dislike for the
grievant that he refused to provide a remedy.
mandatory overtime through arbitration, a local in another union was
shocked when the arbitrator decided the company and the union ‘wouldn’t
have negotiated overtime pay provisions if "reasonable" mandatory
overtime wasn’t expected.’ The decision was bad enough but it set a
precedent that has been used repeatedly in other cases involving similar
’TIL YOU DROP!
arbitration is expensive and there are plenty of bosses who would love
to bankrupt a local union by pushing every grievance to arbitration. The
best rule of thumb: always try to win organizationally; consider
arbitration only if there’s no other course. And, always consider what
will happen if the case is lost.
the arbitrator’s decision may be binding until your contract language is
changed. The common experience: union’s seem to run about a 50-50 chance
of winning discharge and discipline cases, but a much lower percentage
of cases involving contract language. Arbitrators seem much more likely
to defer to the "management rights clause" than support the union’s
interpretation of the contract.
We know it’s
sometimes necessary to arbitrate. Pick your cases carefully and make
sure they’re strong. Be very careful where contract language is
concerned. And, try to take the long view: is it likely that a
particular principle can be won through a stronger case in the future?
Or, should the issue be saved for the bargaining table?