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June 20, 1960 was an important day in the history of labor and the law. On that day the Supreme Court handed down three interrelated decisions clarifying the role of the judiciary in labor arbitration. Written opinions were filed indicating that, where a collective bargaining agreement contains a general promise to arbitrate future disputes, a court is to order arbitration or enforce an arbitration award without serious inquiry into whether the parties agreed to submit the particular dispute to an arbitrator. These opinions are likely to have significant impact on the institution of labor arbitration.
The proper role of courts in the arbitration process is an old and much rehearsed issue. An examination of labor arbitration cases in the courts would reveal that lower courts, by and large, have taken a quite different approach from this one espoused by the Supreme Court. Careful and full inquiry into whether a dispute is within the ambit of a general promise to arbitrate has been the judicial standard. A similar examination of the law journals would show, on the other hand, that the Supreme Court has moved the law a long way in the general direction advocated by many close students of labor relations.
In two of the Supreme Court cases, a union requested a district court to compel an employer to submit a dispute to arbitration. The employer insisted that he had never promised to do so. In the third case, a union sought court assistance in forcing an employer to obey an arbitrator's award. The employer's position was that the arbitrator had exceeded his power. As these cases show, judicial intervention in arbitration can come either prior or subsequent to an arbitrator's award. What the Court did is best evaluated by considering the two types of intervention separately.
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