Real life TV: SHA and ILR students reflect on employment arbitrations
Before college, the most knowledge I had about the legal system came from scripted TV shows. Court case drama series have dominated mainstream television screens for decades, from The Good Wife to Law and Order: SVU. These series hook audience members with each episode through a compelling narrative and engage viewers with “unexpected” twists and turns as both sides navigate the legal system.
While I recognized there is a theatrical element to these shows, I think they sparked my interest in the legal system and led me to HADM 4810/ILR 4060 – Labor Relations in the Hospitality Industry taught by 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 the Cornell Center for Innovative Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations.
Over the course of the semester, I and the other students in the class received an overview of the legal system, focusing on management and employee arbitration. As part of the course, we spent one day in November in a New York City arbitrator’s office, observing two cases in the hospitality industry.
Gaining a newfound perspective on the legal system
Unlike primetime TV’s affinity for creating wildly inventive crimes for lawyers to debate, these cases ostensibly appeared simpler: the first concerned theft of time, while the second involved violence in the workplace. I once watched an outrageous Law and Order: SVU episode where a fertility doctor was accused of stealing patient embryos, so I thought a case where an employee stole…time…would pale in comparison. My expectations arriving to the arbitration were mixed: I was curious to see what an arbitration was like while, at the same time, thinking it would most likely be unexciting and personally irrelevant.
When I write that during both arbitration cases, all the students in the room were feverishly taking notes and sitting on the edge of their seats, I am not exaggerating. No one wanted to leave the room throughout the entire arbitration for fear they would miss a witness’s key statement or a lawyer’s critical piece of evidence. We were hooked on both cases from beginning to end.
But aside from the engaging and memorable cases we observed, students gained a newfound perspective on the legal system that could only be achieved outside of a classroom—and outside of a scripted TV series. TV shows like to craft a captivating story and create a clear side for viewers to “root” for. With labor arbitration, cases are not always black and white.
Contradictory timelines and unprepared witnesses
Specifically, for the second case we observed, the hotel had to argue that an employee had violated the company’s anti-harassment policy by using violence in the workplace. It was a classic case of “he-said/she-said” where there were no witnesses to the alleged violence, so each side needed a strong case complete with compelling witness statements and clear evidence to convince the arbitrator.
“At times, it seemed like the management side would run away with the case, while at other times, the pendulum swung in the union side’s favor,” commented my classmate Alex Adamek ’20 (SHA). “In the second case, both sides’ timelines of the alleged violent incident contradicted each other, clouding our judgments of who to believe.”
By the end of this case, student opinion was split 50/50 as to whose side the arbitrator would rule in favor of, largely because each side presented facts differently.
Another element of arbitration we observed involved the witnesses. At times it did not appear that they were fully prepped for the cases, and our professor David Sherwyn confirmed this. He told us that, often, lawyers do not have the ability to meet with the witnesses to properly prepare them for questioning.
Both cases we heard included the same grievant; in both instances, the lawyers and arbitrator became frustrated with the grievant for not fully answering the questions presented to him and contradicting some of his previous statements. This made it hard to tell if he was in the wrong, or just plain unprepared. With no “script” to follow, some witnesses struggled to gain credibility in the cases, further confusing students about which side to believe.
Witnessing arbitration: Strong emotions, lasting impact
As someone who will be working in hospitality operations upon graduation, I wanted to understand the viewpoint of an ILR School student (and someone who does not watch nearly the same amount of TV that I do) to compare our overall thoughts about the day. I turned to my ILR classmate Nicole Nagura ’20, who commented on the strong student reactions to the cases. “I’ve learned about arbitration in several of my classes, but it was very different seeing it occur in real time,” she said. “I never really thought about how emotions would be carried out in a hearing, but it was very clear how the participants felt.”
To that, I agree—actors on a television screen cannot accurately capture the intense first-hand emotions of witnessing an arbitration process that can affect a person’s employment status at a company where he has worked for 29 years. No matter your background at Cornell, this impact is lasting.
While my continued courtroom experiences will be limited to the shows I watch sitting on my couch, the lessons learned from the arbitrations are nonetheless invaluable to my career. The overwhelming emphasis on having evidentiary support and a strong overarching argument to tie a case together can be applied to any industry. Additionally, my long-term dream is to be the general manager of a luxury hotel, so I will inevitably work at a unionized property at some point. Understanding the intricacies of union employment contracts and the specific cases unions can bring against management put hoteliers in a strong position to effectively lead a property.
But still, somebody get Dick Wolf on the phone and tell him I have an idea for his next TV hit: Law and Order: Hospitality Industry Arbitrations.