Prof. David Twomey (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The strike, which would have dealt a severe blow to the already beleaguered airline, was averted on March 5 when mechanics and cleaners approved United's revised contract.
Twomey, who has arbitrated railroad and airline disputes on seven Presidential Emergency Boards under four different presidents, says the experience is not as dramatic as it might sound: little, if any, made-for-TV verbal sparring takes place between the parties during arbitration sessions. But for a scholar and educator, it is a tremendous opportunity for professional enrichment.
"It becomes part of your fabric," said Twomey. "In that situation, you are learning a lot about serious economic, social and political issues from a close-up view. That's a great thing to be able to offer in your teaching."
Under the 1926 Railway Labor Act, Twomey says, the president can appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to "investigate disputes in which a strike would severely disrupt commerce." The three-member board holds hearings in which labor and management each state their case, then considers the evidence presented and makes a report to the president, Twomey said. Parties have 30 days to consider the board's recommendations and reach agreement; if there is no agreement, the union has a right to strike.
"This is not mediation, where you're trying to bring parties together on a new contract," he explained. "If there is an existing collective bargaining contract, the parties agree to be bound by the arbitration. It's quicker and relatively inexpensive, and there's little recourse for appeal, unless someone can show evidence of fraud or that the board exceeded its authority."
The proceedings, usually held in hotels, are typically orderly events, Twomey says. But during a 1996 rail dispute one union negotiator, upset at news of a failed legal action, slammed his cane down on the table at which the rail carrier representatives sat and berated them. Twomey, who chaired the board, declared the man out of order and warned both parties that such conduct was unacceptable.
As a precaution, Twomey notified the White House that the board would need security at the hearing to defuse any more potential incidents. However, lacking the authority to send its own security personnel to the hotel, the White House instead made arrangements with a private firm, said Twomey: "We got an elderly gentleman with a billy club."
Twomey is not sure why, out of the thousands of arbitrators available, he has had such frequent Presidential Emergency Board assignments. At least one of the tests for a good arbitrator, he said, "is whether the parties would want you back." He notes that a 1992 Presidential Emergency Board report described him as "a very busy and very popular rail arbitrator."
Professional and academic qualifications aside, Twomey said he also leans on his life experience in approaching labor-management disputes.
"I worked union jobs as a college student, including in McElroy Commons," said Twomey, who earned his bachelor's and law degrees from BC. "Earning my MBA and juris doctorate, I was able to see the management side. I learned that you just have to be able to always listen to people and see what they can live with."
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