From Students to Eye-Witnesses: Undergrads Reflect on NYC Employment Arbitration

By: Rachel Green ’24 (ILR)
room full of students observe a real life arbitration

Cornell University Nolan and ILR students have witnessed real-life arbitrations since 2015.

Objection. Speculation. Sustained.

The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) and Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration (Nolan School) students enrolled in HADM4810/ILRLR4060 “Labor Relations in the Hospitality Industry” recently had the unique opportunity to experience an arbitration first-hand in New York City. We are certainly better off to have done so, as it brought the subject matter to life.

Before attending this arbitration, our professors prepped the class. We were taught about the legal system and its intersection with hospitality management. Specifically, we had an “Arbitration & Special Topics” lecture to learn about arbitration and other dispute resolution alternatives. We learned about the steps of the grievance process as well as how the arbitration was supposed to go down. We discussed the traditional progression of dispute resolution, from the initial oral report to a supervisor all the way to the grievance committee. It soon became clear though, that on Thursday, November 10th at 10 a.m., in Midtown Manhattan, we had little actual idea of what to expect as to the gravity and life-altering arguments about to be made.

After getting settled, we listened as the lawyers exchanged pleasantries, and delivered their captivating opening remarks setting forth what they sought to prove: was the hotel employee in question unjustly or justly terminated from his employment?

Discipline and termination: A complex topic

Opening statements were followed by explosive eyewitness testimony, wrought with frequent objections, usually for “speculation”,which were typically “sustained.” As student observers, we were riveted. I was amazed by the vast details set forth by the lawyers and the witnesses. The openings by the lawyers were akin to an opening paragraph of an essay beginning with a hook, and summarizing what is expected to take place. The management lawyer’s hook was “it all started with a leaf blower”.

We soon learned that this case concerned an employee being fired from his job at a hotel after a physical altercation with a co-worker. The chief issue was whether the termination was based on just cause due to a simple fight at work, or whether the purported reason was a pretext and the termination was unfair. The employee claimed that he was attacked and did not have any fault with respect to the attack and therefore didn’t deserve any disciplinary action. According to the hotel management, the employee was terminated because they were not satisfied by the employee’s account of the incident as it conflicted with the assailants account, and the hotel believes in zero tolerance for violence amongst its staff.

This case was far more complicated than I could have imagined. There were many different perspectives and arguments, with nearly four hours spent just on the HR manager’s testimony. I expected the arbitration to be quick and simple, but it was multidimensional, meaningful, and overall exceeded my expectations. The step by step process of arbitration was intriguing, with everyone in the room actively invested in the case. We were developing, in real time, perspective that cases are not really black and white, but gray due to the many complexities brought by the humans and laws involved.

After the arbitration was complete, we were invited to ask questions to the arbitrator and both lawyers, hearing their personal viewpoints as they review the case with us. This made the experience far more special, as not only did we get to just witness the event, but we also were invited to engage.

Perspectives from student observers

Mick Bronsky ’23 (Nolan School): “This course has taught us a lot about unions, and union disputes, but something I observed for the first time from this case was that the two lawyers and the chairperson displayed a thorough understanding of each other’s work and a pre-developed relationship. The lawyers and the arbitrator, all were very comfortable working together to the point where first names would be used whenever there was a heated point of contention. The three men knew how to conduct their business in an orderly, and professional way, but had an understanding and respect for the competition between the two. What is unique about our perspective as students, is the fact that we were also able to interview these three men after the arbitration took place. We were able to get to know a little bit more about their working relationships, as well as each of their individual roles. Not only were we able to see how these people have been working with each other for some time now, but we also could see how they adjusted their tactics as responses to how the other side or the arbitrator reacted to their approach.”

Alyssa Garbulsky ’24 (ILR): “Already passionate about employee rights and unions, having the privilege to witness a discharge arbitration case where an employee was fighting to keep his job was brilliant. I plan to continue taking classes to further my education in the legal system, specifically regarding arbitration and collective bargaining.”

Maria Lima Vieira ’23 (ILR): “I was hooked from the moment I walked in the room! Getting to witness a real arbitration case was an incredible opportunity and made me even more interested in pursuing a career in arbitration myself.”

Observation adds dimension to classroom lessons

As an ILR student, I believe that there definitely is an invaluable aspect to witnessing something first hand that you have been studying. Additionally, as ILR students, it seems as if we are always hearing about wrongful discharge in the workplace. This case, however, had more complexities than I was used to, involving violence in the workplace. On the flip side, Cornell Nolan School students got to experience real conflict in the hospitality industry, giving an interesting new perspective on problems that may arise at hospitality-based jobs.

All in all, seeing an arbitration in action may have just been the epitome of ILR. And the fact that it is based in hospitality management really brought the hotel school to life. This experience was thus valuable to my degree and career, and my peers certainly agree.

Headshot of Rachel Green

Rachel Green ’24 (ILR)

Rachel Green is a junior in the ILR school, from Long Island, NY. She is interested in collective bargaining as well as labor and employment law. Rachel is currently an intern at the Michigan Employment Clinic, after working at the NYC Office of Collective Bargaining. After graduation, she hopes to obtain a law degree and continue to study labor and employment law. Outside of school, she enjoys art and music.