363 U.S. 593 (1960), 538, United Steelworkers of America v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 538
Citation:363 U.S. 593, 80 S.Ct. 1358, 4 L.Ed.2d 1424
Party Name:United Steelworkers of America v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp.
Case Date:June 20, 1960
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 593

363 U.S. 593 (1960)

80 S.Ct. 1358, 4 L.Ed.2d 1424

United Steelworkers of America

v.

Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp.

No. 538

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1960

Argued April 28, 1960

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Employees were discharged during the term of a collective bargaining agreement containing a provision for arbitration of disputes, including differences "as to the meaning and application" of the agreement, and a provision for reinstatement with back pay of employees discharged in violation of the agreement. The discharges were arbitrated after the agreement had expired, and the arbitrator found that they were in violation of the agreement and that the agreement required reinstatement with back pay, minus pay for a ten-day suspension and such sums as the employees had received from other employment. Respondent refused to comply with the award, and the District Court directed it to do so. The Court of Appeals held that (a) failure of the award to specify the amounts to be deducted from the back pay rendered the award unenforceable, though that defect could be remedied by requiring the parties to complete the arbitration, (b) an award for back pay subsequent to the date of expiration of the collective bargaining agreement could not be enforced, and (c) the requirement for reinstatement of the discharged employees was unenforceable because the collective bargaining agreement had expired.

Held: The judgment of the District Court should have been affirmed with a modification requiring the specific amounts due the employees to be definitely determined by arbitration. Pp. 594-599.

(a) Federal courts should decline to review the merits of arbitration awards under collective bargaining agreements. Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., ante, p. 574. P. 596.

(b) The opinion of the arbitrator in this case, as it bears upon the award of back pay beyond the date of the agreement's expiration and reinstatement, is ambiguous, but mere ambiguity in the opinion accompanying an award is not a reason for refusing to enforce the award, even when it permits the inference that the arbitrator may have exceeded his authority. Pp. 597-598.

(c) The question of interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement is a question for the arbitrator, and the courts have no

Page 594

business overruling his construction of the contract merely because their interpretation of it is different from his. Pp. 598-599.

(d) The Court of Appeals erred in holding that an award for back pay subsequent to the date of expiration of the collective bargaining agreement could not be enforced, and that the requirement for reinstatement of the discharged employees was unenforceable because the collective bargaining agreement had expired. Pp. 596, 599.

(e) The judgment of the District Court ordering respondent to comply with the arbitrator's award should be modified so that the amount due the employees may be definitely determined by arbitration. P. 599.

69 F.2d 327, reversed in part.

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, announced by MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN.

Petitioner union and respondent during the period relevant here had a collective bargaining agreement which provided that any differences "as to the meaning and application" of the agreement should be submitted to arbitration and that the arbitrator's decision "shall be final and binding on the parties." Special provisions were included concerning the suspension and discharge of employees. The agreement stated:

Should it be determined by the Company or by an arbitrator in accordance with the grievance procedure that the employee has been suspended unjustly or discharged in violation of the provisions of this Agreement, the Company shall reinstate the employee and pay full compensation at the employee's regular rate of pay for the time lost.

Page 595

[80 S.Ct. 1360] The agreement also provided:

. . . It is understood and agreed that neither party will institute civil suits or legal proceedings against the other for alleged violation of any of the provisions of this labor contract; instead, all disputes will be settled in the manner outlined in this Article III -- Adjustment of Grievances.

A group of employees left their jobs in protest against the discharge of one employee. A union official advised them at once to return to work. An official of respondent at their request gave them permission and then rescinded it. The next day, they were told they did not have a job any more "until this thing was settled one way or the other."

A grievance was filed, and when respondent finally refused to arbitrate, this suit was brought for specific enforcement of the arbitration provisions of the agreement. The District Court ordered arbitration. The arbitrator found that the discharge of the men was not justified, though their conduct, he said, was improper. In his view, the facts warranted, at most, a suspension of the men for 10 days each. After their discharge and before the arbitration award, the collective bargaining agreement had expired. The union, however, continued to represent the workers at the plant. The arbitrator rejected the contention that expiration of the agreement barred reinstatement of the employees. He held that the provision of the agreement above quoted imposed an unconditional obligation on the employer. He awarded reinstatement with back pay, minus pay for a 10-day suspension and such sums as these employees received from other employment.

Respondent refused to comply with the award. Petitioner moved the District Court for enforcement. The District Court directed respondent to comply. 168 F.Supp. 308. The Court of Appeals, while agreeing that

Page 596

the District Court had jurisdiction to enforce an arbitration award under a collective bargaining agreement,1 held that the failure of the award to specify the amounts to be deducted from the back pay rendered the award unenforceable. That defect, it agreed, could be remedied by requiring the parties to complete the arbitration. It went on to hold, however, that an award for back pay subsequent to the date of termination of the collective bargaining agreement could not be enforced. It also held that the requirement for reinstatement of the discharged employees was likewise unenforceable because the collective bargaining agreement had expired. 269 F.2d 327. We granted certiorari. 361 U.S. 929.

The refusal of courts to review the merits of an arbitration award is the proper approach to arbitration under collective bargaining agreements. The federal policy of settling labor disputes by arbitration would be undermined if courts had the final say on the merits of the awards. As we stated in United Steelworkers of America v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., ante, at 574, the arbitrators under these collective agreements are indispensable agencies in a continuous collective bargaining process. They sit to settle disputes at the plant level -- disputes that require for their solution knowledge of the custom and practices of a particular factory or of a particular industry as reflected in...

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