Building a Career as a Labor Arbitrator
Labor arbitration is one of the oldest fields of alternative dispute resolution. Although
union membership has declined substantially in recent decades, especially in the
private sector, arbitration is still central to the resolution of disputes under collective
bargaining agreements, and labor arbitration remains an important and rewarding
practice. If you are considering starting a career as a labor arbitrator, this article (which
updates one published in the Spring 2005 issue of ACResolution Magazine) offers some
considerations and words of encouragement.
Sarah Miller Espinosa
and Richard D. Fincher
About the Authors
ESPINOSA , Esq.
is a labor arbitrator,
facilitator of interest-based processes.
She also serves as
the ombuds at Montgomery College, in
Ms. Espinosa is a
co-chair of the ACR
is a full-time mediator and arbitrator of
labor and employment disputes. He is
an Instructor at the
on Conflict Resolution
at Cornell University.
He served as Co-chair
of the ACR Workplace
Section and served
on the ACR Board of
Directors and as Vice-President.
Any career change requires self-reflection, planning, perseverance, and patience. The risk of failure
is high, in part due to unrealistic expectations and
financial challenges. The risk of changing from
another kind of dispute resolution practice to labor
arbitration is increased by the expectation (indeed,
the requirement for American Arbitration Association (AAA) and Federal Mediation and Conciliation
Service (FMCS) arbitrators) that the arbitrator will
refrain from any labor-management advocacy work.
Employment mediators and arbitrators may continue practicing employment law and still serve as
neutrals so long as appropriate disclosures are made.
Labor arbitrators may not.
So the first step in considering moving to a career
as a labor arbitrator is to assess your readiness by
candidly answering some basic questions :
• What is your motivation?
• Do you have respect and appreciation
for collective bargaining?
• Do you have the patience for a career
that builds slowly over time and has no
• Do you enjoy working alone, studying
transcripts and briefs? Are you an
• Do you have the self-discipline to write
arbitration awards on tight deadlines?
• Have you spoken to successful labor
If you have, has your prior career tested the skill
sets required of an arbitrator? If the answers to these
questions is generally affirmative, you may wish to
further investigate this career.
The Code of Professional Responsibility for Arbitrators of Labor-Management Disputes of the
National Academy of Arbitrators, American Arbitration Association, and Federal Mediation and
Conciliation Service (amended September 2007),
lists the essential personal qualifications of a labor
arbitrator as including: “honesty, integrity, impartiality, and general competence in labor arbitration
matters.” The Code further requires the exercise of
good judgment and includes other ethical To review
the Code and advisory opinions, see www.naarb.org.
There are four competencies in the performance
of a labor arbitrator. They are: substantive knowledge, case/hearing management, decision making,
and award writing. Each element is essential to the
responsibilities of a labor arbitrator. In order to gain
acceptability and be selected by parties to decide
cases, competency in each element must be demonstrated.
Substantive knowledge refers to an understanding
of the relationship between labor unions and management in the field of labor relations. This competence
includes a knowledge and expertise in collective bargaining and the interpretation of collective bargaining
agreements. Additionally, this competence includes
the process and procedure of arbitration, including
arbitrability, just cause in discipline, and elements of
Case/hearing management refers to skills in conducting the arbitration hearing. This competence
includes a knowledge of the rules of evidence, maintaining control of the hearing, and responding to