NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

NCPPR Paper: When Arbitration Isn't Fair

March 1, 1998

Basketball all-star Latrell Sprewell was fired by his team and suspended for a year by the National Basketball Association (NBA) for choking his coach. But his suspension was reduced and his contract reinstated by an arbitrator under the contract between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

Critics say unions want arbitration -- rather than the courts -- to be the ultimate voice in worker-union disputes because the rules of the American Arbitration Association (AAA) are written to favor organized labor: only the union can invoke the arbitration process (or can do so without worker consent); only union officials are allowed to "describe the issues involved;" and normal courtroom rules regarding evidence and witnesses do not apply.

  • In a case to be heard this month by the U.S. Supreme Court, 150 Delta Air Line pilots are suing the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) over that union's unwillingness to provide a full accounting of how membership dues are spent.
  • When the case was forced into arbitration against the pilots' wishes, the only witnesses were ALPA officials using financial summaries and blank forms as their evidence -- not surprisingly, the union won.
  • In this case, a lower court already noted arbitration is "not... perceived [to be] sympathetic to the concerns of workers."

The AAA itself lacks even the appearance of impartiality, say critics, since its board of directors includes such labor leaders as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, American Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman and National Treasury Employees Union President Robert Tobias.

Arbitration got Latrell Sprewell back in the game, say critics, but the Supreme Court may end up benching organized labor's future use of the process to get around abiding by the will of union members and the law.

Source: David W. Almasi, "Mad About the Sprewell Case? Blame Labor Unions," NPA Paper #187, March 1998, National Center for Public Policy Research, 300 Eye Street, N.E., Suite 3, Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 543-1286.


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