Two sides to every story: Observing an employment arbitration in New York City

By: Lindsay Austin Schechter ’20 (ILR)
Photo of an impartial chairperson.

An impartial chairperson speaks to a group of Cornell students.

With support from the Cornell Center for Innovative Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations (CIHLER), students from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and the ILR School have the annual experiential learning opportunity to observe an actual arbitration hearing in New York City. An understanding of the arbitration process is important for students in the hospitality industry, as the popularity of using alternative dispute resolutions is becoming increasingly widespread due to its efficiency, flexibility, and low costs in resolving disputes between labor and management.

Taking advantage of this experiential learning opportunity, I and the other students in HADM 4810/ILR 4060 – Labor Relations in the Hospitality Industry relocated our lesson on arbitration from Statler Hall, on the Cornell Ithaca campus, to the office of a New York City arbitrator one day in November.

A clash between labor and management

When we arrived at his office, the arbitrator introduced himself, outlined what employment arbitration typically looks like, and then discussed the case at hand. He explained that it involved two issues: theft of time and employee violence. As an ILRie interested in pre-law, I was immediately intrigued.

This case, between a five-star hotel and a food-and-beverage employee, highlighted the ongoing clash between labor and management in the hospitality industry. Not only had the employee worked at this hotel for over 20 years, but he had also served as a delegate, or union liaison, for other food-and-beverage employees at the hotel. Once well-regarded, the employee now sat before his manager and company lawyers, trying to save his livelihood.

Making their cases: Cross-examinations and objections

In class discussions, our professors—David Sherwyn, the John and Melissa Ceriale professor of hospitality and human resources, and Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies emeritus and associate director of CIHLER—have emphasized the changing nature of unions within our society. This opportunity to observe an employment arbitration allowed me to witness firsthand the current dynamic between union and management.

Throughout the day, we observed the skill of attorneys from both sides during cross-examination. As my classmate Ryan Lawrence ’20 (SHA) put it: “I was very impressed by the attorneys utilizing objections when their opposition was questioning the witness. Both management and the union had to be quick on their feet to try to halt the momentum of the opposition. This added in another element of strategy during the arbitration that I was not expecting.”

Truth versus fabrication: Who benefits?

The culmination of the first case regarding the theft of time reached its most exciting point during the final cross-examination of the employee. I began to question whether this time theft was simply a classic “he said/they said” situation, where a misunderstanding was blown out of proportion due to ulterior motives. Did the employee consciously make the decision not to clock out? Or did the manager forget to change the employee’s time sheet following their discussion? Was this really a theft of time?

The arbitration then moved on to issue two against the employee: an accusation of violence, which only furthered my belief that management wanted this employee out. The manager of food and beverage accused this employee of grabbing his shoulder and, with the same arm, elbowing him in the chest. Not only did the union question the positioning of this “attack” but, the cross-examination questions diminished management’s assault accusation. For example, the manager could not demonstrate how someone could grab his shoulder and elbow him in the chest at the same time. He then revised his statement and asserted that the employee, instead, moved his arm from the manager’s shoulder in order to elbow him.

In addition, the manager stated that he failed to take photos of any contusions produced by the impact. Rather than going to Urgent Care right away, he completed the task at hand instead and then went to human resources to report the situation. This account, along with the description of the attack, seemed to have holes in it. My classmate Chris Gartrell ’20 (SHA) summed it up for both of us: “The cross-examination of the manager by the union furthered my own belief that at least part of this account was fabricated. If the manager was truly injured, why did he not seek help immediately for proper treatment?”

Cornell students observe the arbitration
Cornell students observe the arbitration. From right to left: Chris Gartrell, Lindsay Schechter, Julio Rodriguez, Grant Uebele, David Barge, Jack Delaney, and Peter Kavanos.

How do we determine truth?

I’ve grown up believing that there are two sides to every story. One must consider perspective when understanding conflict. Yet, how do we determine which story provides “more truth” than the other? More importantly, what happens when someone’s job—someone’s livelihood—is on the line? They say the truth will set you free. If that’s so, how do we determine who is more “truthful”? Is it the employee with a long tenure or the management of one of the most renowned hotels in the world?

The arbitrator must now determine whose story is worth believing. His decision will be binding (barring some egregious level of unfairness) and will, therefore, almost never be reversed.

Lindsay Schechter

Lindsay Austin Schechter ’20 (ILR)

Lindsay Austin Schechter is a senior in the ILR School with a double minor in disability studies and inequality studies. On campus, she is involved in Consent Ed and Big Red Ambassadors. In addition, she is the philanthropy chair of her business fraternity, Pi Sigma Epsilon, a research assistant at the Yang Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, and a bartender. Schechter plans on attending law school in the future and hopes to one day become an employment lawyer. Her past internships include working as a pro bono intern at Kirkland and Ellis and as a corporate law intern at Mastercard. In her free time, Schechter enjoys running, cooking, and traveling.