Arbitration in Practice: A Profile of Public Sector Arbitration Cases

Article excerpt

Union membership in the public sector has grown rapidly, particularly at the state and local levels (Klingner, 1993). More than one-third of state government employees belong to unions as do almost one-half of people employed by local governments and schools (Coleman, 1990). Accompanying this growth has been the spread of collective bargaining into the public sector and an increased reliance on arbitration (Vest, O'Brien, & Vest, 1990). Many states have passed legislation mandating arbitration and have given arbitrators sole responsibility for settling collective bargaining agreement disputes with binding arbitration provisions (Coleman, 1990; Dunn & Overton, 1988). Furthermore, forty-one states have passed comprehensive laws which establish a duty to bargain over conditions of employment for public employees and, in most of these states, grievance arbitration is a mandatory topic of negotiation (Coleman, 1988).

Despite the recent widespread practice of arbitration in the public sector, the research literature in this area is weak (Lavan, 1990). The issues which reach arbitration are unclear (Coleman, 1988), little is known about the outcomes of the arbitration process and, generally, most employers do not know the reasons why cases are most often brought to the arbitration step (Mesch & Dalton, 1992). Moreover, employers are unfamiliar with the patterns of case resolutions - in what areas is the grievant or the organization more likely to win, lose, or reach some compromise (Mesch & Dalton, 1992). This lack of awareness may be particularly unsettling given that one recent study found almost 23 percent of filed grievances in the public sector resulted in a demand for an arbitration hearing (Bohlander, 1992).

The purpose of this paper is to shed some light on these issues. The authors analyzed 994 public sector arbitration cases from Labor Arbitration Reports: Dispute Settlements over a seven year period of time (1985-1992). Each case was coded according to the parties involved in the dispute, the type of case, and case resolution. It is anticipated that the results of this analysis will provide some insight into the public sector arbitration process. This study extends current knowledge of the topic in that it is not limited to one group of public employees - rather, all public unions at the local, state, and federal level are included.(1) Furthermore, all classifications of arbitration cases are examined and disciplinary-type infractions are classified and analyzed separately.

Categories of Arbitration Cases

A few studies have investigated patterns of arbitration across both public and private sectors. In an early study, Zirkel (1983) analyzed a sample of 400 arbitration cases according to case chronology, hearing characteristics, case content, issue identification, and case outcome. Although discharge and discipline cases were found to be the most prevalent, other categories frequently brought to arbitration were fringe benefits, work assignments, promotion and transfer, wages, and arbitrability. A more recent analysis of over 1100 arbitration cases found very similar results - discharge cases again being the most prevalent (Mesch & Dalton, 1992).

Coleman (1988; 1990) also found discipline and discharge cases to be the most prevalent for government employees. Half of the reported cases filed involved discipline, discharge, the policies and procedures in those areas, just cause, and employee suspensions (Coleman, 1990). Unlike the private sector, however, benefit and wage issues were less likely to occur in the public domain. Katz and LaVan (1991) also found discipline cases to be extremely high in the public sector.

Although there is little empirical research examining arbitration outcomes, the literature reviewed suggests that cases brought to arbitration in both the public and private sector address a variety of incidents and conditions. The following is a brief explanation of issues of typically brought to arbitration in the public sector. …