When binding arbitration doesn't bind - Alexis Buss

An article by Alexis Buss about how binding arbitration favors employers. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1630 (January/February 2001)

The IWW has always taken a dim view of arbitration, recognizing that no union ever won something from an "impartial" arbitrator that it was not strong enough to win through its own power. Arbitration promotes the illusion that problems at the workplace can be resolved through an appeal to fairness or to some objective standard of the exact degree of exploitation and degradation the worker should have to endure. Fundamentally, it is based on the premise that the interests of the workers and the bosses can be reconciled, if only by an outside "expert" who dispassionately weighs the evidence for both sides.
So, Wobblies are reluctant to entrust individual grievances to the hands of an arbitrator. But the notion of letting an arbitrator decide the conditions under which all of us will work is even more repellent, and I don't know of an instance where an IWW branch has ever agreed to do such a thing. However, many unions are not as particular as we are, and it is not uncommon - especially in the public sector, where there are often fairly severe legal limitations on striking - for unions which have been unable to reach a contract agreeing to submit the matters in dispute to binding arbitration.

As just one example of the narrow-minded, class bias typical of arbitrators, who are most usually chosen from the ranks of lawyers, consultants and others who will never have to work under the conditions they impose, Arbitrator Frank Keenan recently dismissed a grievance from Steelworkers Local 14734 on behalf of a worker suspended for three days without pay. His crime? Giving the finger to management in a photo snapped to commemorate his fifth-year anniversary. The arbitrator ruled that "conduct disrespectful of supervisors and the institution of the Company" is grounds for discipline. When's the last time you heard of a supervisor or a CEO losing pay for being disrespectful of the workers on the line?

Quite often workers have emerged from these arbitrations vowing "Never again," yet unions don't simply repudiate the results of an arbitration process into which it had voluntarily subjected itself, no matter how repugnant. The bosses, it seems, are under no such moral compunction.

Last year, Hawaii public school teachers submitted their salaries to binding arbitration after years of stagnant pay. The arbitrator agreed that some measure of relief was called for, issuing an order giving the teachers far less than they had asked for during bargaining. The state government has simply refused to pay up, claiming that it doesn't have the money (though it has no difficulty finding the funds for an endless series of tourist-oriented boondoggles).

Closer to home, for me, Philadelphia firefighters have long been demanding compensation when they are exposed to Hepatitis on the job, a serious disease which has hit many firefighters in recent years. The city has refused, and so the matter went to arbitration as part of their new contract. The arbitrator figured that when firefighters were injured on the job, they were certainly entitled to compensation. The city simply refused to accept the arbitrator's ruling, instead rewriting the contract to suit its own tastes and imposing that on the firefighters. The firefighters sued, but as usual the courts ruled that workers have no rights that the bosses are obliged to respect, and overturned the arbitrator's award for sick leave for workers ill with the virus.

If workers refused to follow an arbitrator's ruling (or a court ruling, for that matter) on the grounds that they couldn't afford it (they, after all, have to pay rent and childcare, pay for our food and medical bills, etc.), the back-to-work orders and contempt of court jailings and firings would hail down on their heads until they lay battered and bleeding on the street. But the bosses can pick and choose what orders they follow. Binding arbitration, it seems, is binding only on the workers.

-- Alexis Buss

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1630 (January/February 2001)