A guest contribution from Catholic Labor Network member Michael Loconto. Michael teaches arbitration to union staff and officers at the Boston Labor Guild.
In the contentious world of labor relations, disagreements between workers and employers are frequent. Collective bargaining agreements offer methods of self-help to the parties: grievance processes compel management and labor to meet and discuss dispute resolution. When an impasse cannot be overcome through a grievance procedure or contract negotiations, a neutral and impartial third party may be called in to resolve the dispute.
Arbitrators and mediators are alternative dispute resolution (ADR) providers, mutually selected by the parties to serve in place of costly and time-consuming court systems. Mediators help the parties reach agreement on an issue by facilitating dialogue and lifting up voices, drawing out the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, and by helping to establish mutually shared interests that provide a foundation for resolution.
When employers and workers cannot agree to settle a contract or resolve a grievance, arbitrators may be called upon to issue a final and binding resolution. Arbitrators are both empowered and limited by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. That contract is a product of negotiation between workers and employers; a set of established rules and norms for the workplace that represent collaboration and compromise between management and labor.
A former judge recently attacked the grievance arbitration process in an editorial calling for police union reforms, asserting as evidence of a broken system one finding that more than half of all disciplinary cases had been overturned in a large urban department. Such criticism ignores the social values of dignity and agency that are present in the arbitration process, exemplified by the principle of just cause and the reality that managers who administer discipline are human and may be susceptible to error and bias in the same way that employees may be capable of committing offenses worthy of discipline. At arbitration, the appropriateness of a penalty is reviewed through the lens of progressive discipline, which calls for corrective rather than punitive measures intended to provide the employee with an opportunity to correct behavior. Arbitrators also guard against disparate treatment among individuals found responsible for similar offenses.
Anthony Annett writes about labor and management sharing a joint vocation in Cathonomics. Unlike the winner-takes-all approach of litigation, no matter the outcome at mediation or arbitration the parties must show up at the workplace the next day and resume working shoulder-to-shoulder. While the losing party may be disappointed by the outcome in an arbitrated dispute, employers and workers can have confidence in the expectation that an unbiased and objective arbitrator will consistently apply the terms of their collective bargaining agreement to resolve disputes. This stability is key to industrial peace in a long-term collective bargaining relationship.