475 U.S. 643 (1986), 84-1913, AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers of America

Docket Nº:No. 84-1913
Citation:475 U.S. 643, 106 S.Ct. 1415, 89 L.Ed.2d 648, 54 U.S.L.W. 4339
Party Name:AT&T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers of America
Case Date:April 07, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 643

475 U.S. 643 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 1415, 89 L.Ed.2d 648, 54 U.S.L.W. 4339

AT&T Technologies, Inc.

v.

Communications Workers of America

No. 84-1913

United States Supreme Court

April 7, 1986

Argued January 22, 1986

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner employer and respondent Union are parties to a collective bargaining agreement covering telephone equipment installation workers. Article 8 of the agreement provides for arbitration of differences arising over interpretation of the agreement. Article 9 provides that, subject to certain limitations, but otherwise not subject to the arbitration clause, petitioner is free to exercise certain management functions, including the hiring, placement, and termination of employees. Article 20 prescribes the order in which employees will be laid off "[w]hen lack of work necessitates Layoff." The Union filed a grievance challenging petitioner's decision to lay off 79 installers from its Chicago location, claiming that there was no lack of work at that location, and that therefore the layoffs would violate Article 20. But petitioner laid off the installers and refused to submit the grievance to arbitration on the ground that, under Article 9, the layoffs were not arbitrable. The Union then sought to compel arbitration by filing suit in Federal District Court, which, after finding that the Union's interpretation of Article 20 was at least "arguable," held that it was for the arbitrator, not the court, to decide whether that interpretation had merit, and, accordingly, ordered petitioner to arbitrate. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The issue whether, because of express exclusion or other evidence, the dispute over interpretation of Article 20 was subject to the arbitration clause [106 S.Ct. 1416] should have been decided by the District Court and reviewed by the Court of Appeals, and should not have been referred to the arbitrator. Pp. 648-657.

(a) Under the principles set forth in the Steelworkers Trilogy (Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564; Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574; and Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593), it was the District Court's duty to interpret the collective bargaining agreement and to determine whether the parties intended to arbitrate grievances concerning layoffs predicated on a "lack of work" determination by petitioner. If the court should determine that the agreement so provides, then it would be for the arbitrator to determine the relative merits of the parties' substantive interpretations of the agreement. Pp. 648-651.

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(b) This Court will not examine the collective bargaining agreement for itself and affirm the Court of Appeals on the ground that the parties had agreed to arbitrate the dispute over the layoffs. It is not this Court's function in the first instance to construe collective bargaining agreements and arbitration clauses, or to consider any other evidence that might demonstrate that a particular grievance was not subject to arbitration. Pp. 651-652.

751 F.2d 203, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 652.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented in this case is whether a court asked to order arbitration of a grievance filed under a collective bargaining agreement must first determine that the parties intended to arbitrate the dispute, or whether that determination is properly left to the arbitrator.

I

AT&T Technologies, Inc. (AT&T or the Company), and the Communications Workers of America (the Union) are parties to a collective bargaining agreement which covers telephone equipment installation workers. Article 8 of this agreement

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establishes that "differences arising with respect to the interpretation of this contract or the performance of any obligation hereunder" must be referred to a mutually agreeable arbitrator upon the written demand of either party. This Article expressly does not cover disputes "excluded from arbitration by other provisions of this contract."1 Article 9 provides that, "subject to the limitations contained in the provisions of this contract, but otherwise not subject to the provisions of the arbitration clause," AT&T is free to exercise certain management functions, including the hiring and placement of employees and the termination of employment.2 "When lack of work necessitates Layoff," Article 20 prescribes the order in which employees are to be laid off.3

[106 S.Ct. 1417] On September 17, 1981, the Union filed a grievance challenging AT&T's decision to lay off 79 installers from its Chicago base location. The Union claimed that, because there was no lack of work at the Chicago location, the

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planned layoffs would violate Article 20 of the agreement. Eight days later, however, AT&T laid off all 79 workers, and soon thereafter, the Company transferred approximately the same number of installers from base locations in Indiana and Wisconsin to the Chicago base. AT&T refused to submit the grievance to arbitration on the ground that, under Article 9, the Company's decision to lay off workers when it determines that a lack of work exists in a facility is not arbitrable.

The Union then sought to compel arbitration by filing suit in federal court pursuant to § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185(a).4 Communications Workers of America v. Western Electric Co., No. 82 C 772 (ND Ill., Nov. 18, 1983). Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court reviewed the provisions of Articles 8, 9, and 20, and set forth the parties' arguments as follows:

Plaintiffs interpret Article 20 to require that there be an actual lack of work prior to employee layoffs, and argue that there was no such lack of work in this case. Under plaintiffs' interpretation, Article 20 would allow the union to take to arbitration the threshold issue of whether the layoffs were justified by a lack of work. Defendant interprets Article 20 as merely providing a sequence for any layoffs which management, in its exclusive judgment, determines are necessary. Under defendant's interpretation, Article 20 would not allow for an arbitrator to decide whether the layoffs were warranted by a lack of work, but only whether the company

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followed the proper order in laying off the employees.

App. to Pet. for Cert. 10A. Finding that "the union's interpretation of Article 20 was at least `arguable,'" the court held that it was "for the arbitrator, not the court, to decide whether the union's interpretation has merit," and accordingly ordered the Company to arbitrate. Id. at 11A.

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Communications Workers of America v. Western Electric Co., 751 F.2d 203 (1984). The Court of Appeals understood the District Court to have ordered arbitration of the threshold issue of arbitrability. Id. at 205, n. 4. The court acknowledged the "general rule" that the issue of arbitrability is for the courts to decide unless the parties stipulate otherwise, but noted that this Court's decisions in Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574 (1960), and Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564 (1960), caution courts to avoid becoming entangled in the merits of a labor dispute under the guise of deciding arbitrability. From this observation, the court announced an "exception" to the general rule, under which

a court should compel arbitration of the arbitrability issue where the collective bargaining agreement contains a standard arbitration clause, the parties have not clearly excluded the arbitrability issue from arbitration, and deciding the issue would entangle the court in interpretation of substantive provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, and thereby involve consideration of the merits of the dispute.

751 F.2d at 206.

[106 S.Ct. 1418] All of these factors were present in this case. Article 8 was a "standard arbitration clause," and there was "no clear, unambiguous exclusion from arbitration of terminations predicated by a lack of work determination." Id. at 206-207. Moreover, although there were "colorable arguments" on both sides of the exclusion issue, if the court were to decide this question, it would have to interpret not only Article 8, but Articles 9 and 20 as well, both of which are "substantive

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provisions of the Agreement." The court thus "decline[d] the invitation to decide arbitrability," and ordered AT&T "to arbitrate the arbitrability issue." Id. at 207.

The court admitted that its exception was "difficult to reconcile with the Supreme Court's discussion of a court's duty to decide arbitrability in [ John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston,376 U.S. 543 (1964)]." The court asserted, however, that the discussion was "dicta," and that this Court had reopened the issue in Nolde Brothers, Inc. v. Bakery Workers, 430 U.S. 243, 255, n. 8 (1977). 751 F.2d at 206.

We granted certiorari, 474 U.S. 814 (1985), and now vacate the Seventh Circuit's decision and remand for a determination of whether the Company is required to arbitrate the Union's grievance.

II

The principles necessary to decide this case are not new. They were set out by this Court over 25 years ago in a series of cases known as the Steelworkers Trilogy: Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., supra; Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., supra; and Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593 (1960). These precepts have served the industrial relations community well, and have led to continued reliance on arbitration, rather than strikes or lockouts, as the preferred method of resolving disputes arising during the term of a collective...

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