Labor Relations Arbitrator  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotLabor relations arbitrators resolve disputes between employees (or unions) and employers. If all other methods of negotiation have failed, an arbitrator is called in to settle the disagreement.

dotArbitrators differ from labor relations negotiators. Arbitrators are independent bodies. Negotiators usually work for either a union or management.

dotBasically, people in this field are like judges. They weigh all the facts of a dispute and decide who "wins."

dotHere's how it works. Say a union feels its employees are being treated unfairly by an employer, but the employer disagrees. The two parties can't come to a compromise about their disagreement. At this point, they call in an arbitrator.

"As an arbitrator, I will set up a hearing where both the union reps and the employer will tell me their side of the story," says arbitrator Trevor Petit. "Once all the evidence has been presented, I take all the information and decide the best way to settle the case."

dotOnce the hearing is complete, the arbitrator retreats to an office to examine notes and decide how to resolve the case. Then they will write up a decision, called an award.

dotIn most states, the decision of an arbitrator is legally binding. That means the people on both sides of the dispute must do what the arbitrator says.

dotPeople working in this field say most arbitration cases aren't clear-cut. Often, each side in a dispute is right in some way. "Most of the time, it's not a win-lose situation. Usually, my decision is a kind of compromise for both parties, in that some of each of their demands are met," says arbitrator Yuki Yi.

dotAn arbitrator must remain neutral at all times. This means they can't favor one side in a dispute, even if they support the cause for which the people are fighting. Being neutral during a case can be quite difficult, especially when someone's job is on the line.

"It's a tough job sometimes, because you're deciding the outcome of people's lives," says Tom Watkins, a labor relations arbitrator in Denver.

"The arbitrator's decision might result in someone being fired, for example. Even if you feel badly for this person and think the dismissal is heartless, you might still have to make this decision if all the facts support it."

dotArbitration societies across America keep lists of qualified arbitrators in their areas. When a labor dispute occurs and both sides agree to hire an arbitrator, the nearest society will choose an arbitrator from the list and contract that person to handle the case.

dotArbitrators work as independent contractors. That means they don't work for any particular company and they get paid for each dispute they resolve. "Because we're contractors, the cases we handle throughout the year can be few and far between, so most [arbitrators] have other careers, and their arbitration work is supplemental," says Watkins.

dotIn fact, experts say only about 15 percent of North American arbitrators do this work full time. The rest usually work as university professors or lawyers when they aren't arbitrating.

At a Glance

Resolve disputes between employees and employers

  • Usually, an arbitrator's decisions are binding
  • Only about 15 percent of North American arbitrators do this work full time
  • A background in law can help