Case study

Aribtrator/mediator — Terry Sullivan

Terry has considerable experience as an arbitrator in industrial relations, working with trade union members and settling disputes

How did you get into arbitration?

I studied economics and politics at the University of Oxford and later economics and industrial relations at the University of Leeds. My professor told me that some employers, particularly trade union representatives, felt that most arbitrators had little or no practical experience of industrial relations. I got a position with Acas, as Acas believes it should seek to recruit arbitrators who have both a working class background and some practical experience of representing trade union members.

Before I went to Leeds, I had been a shop steward and trade union delegate on a trades council for three years. I also spent twelve months as a research associate in the Incomes Policy Unity at St. Peter's College, Oxford. I think my background was significant in helping me become an arbitrator.

What's the work of an arbitrator like?

Generally, the work usually requires at least a full day in reading the evidence supplied by the trade union and the employer and doing some research on the issues under consideration. There's then a day for the hearing, which is followed by a full day thinking about and writing out the report.

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My academic study of labour history, labour economics, political theory and industrial relations worked in a positive way with my practical experience. They all fed on each other and I found them most relevant to the process of industrial arbitration.

What do you enjoy about being an arbitrator?

As an academic, I feel being an arbitrator keeps me in touch with people and issues from the real world of industrial relations. In turn, this gives my lecturing and supervisory duties (undergraduate dissertations, MA, MBA and PhD work) both a practical and academic relevance.

What are the most challenging parts?

The challenges depend upon the subject under arbitration. For example, a dispute over pay requires knowledge of the theory and practice of wage determination. It requires an appreciation that with regard to pay, employers have an instrumental perspective (prices, productivity, costs and profitability), while trade unions - and employees generally - have a normative view of pay and give weight to fairness, reasonableness and dignity. If the issue under arbitration is a non-wage issue, such as unfair dismissal, then there are two critical issues:

  • the extent to which the dismissal fits with natural rights as set out in the law
  • the matter of truth.

What an arbitrator has to keep in mind is that, to quote Oscar Wilde, the plain and simple truth is rarely plain and never simple. Put another way, one tale is good until another is told. Thus, the challenge in these issues is coming to a judgement which is fair and reasonable in the circumstances.

How has your role developed and what are your career ambitions?

Over the years I have been arbitrating, the main development has been getting a (lay) grasp of the way law has entered the employment relationship. For example, the historical position for many years was that arbitrators should not give reasons for their decisions. The purpose of arbitration was to resolve the issue, not to engage in further disagreement. However, as more practitioners of law entered the field of employment relations, they brought concepts like precedent, case law and reasons into the arbitration process. Arbitrators had to move in step with the changes that were taking place in dispute resolution.

Any words of advice for someone who wants to get into this job?

Always seek to link theory and practice. The best practice is good theory. Try to keep abreast of developments in the subject. Also, always try to understand both sides of an issue - you don't have to agree with either.

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