An arbitrator’s finding that an employer could not unilaterally switch safety handbooks without bargaining for that switch was upheld by a federal district court. Firstenergy Generation Corp. v. IBEW, WDPA, No. 14-560, March 16, 2015.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) filed a grievance after Firstenergy Generation Corporation attempted to replace the Company’s original safety handbook (“the Red Handbook”) with another manual (“the Green Handbook”).

The Union’s grievance was based on language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which stated that “The Company and the Union agree to cooperate in maintaining safe work practices. In furtherance of this undertaking, it is agreed that the parties will comply with the rules set forth in the [Red] Handbook. Any claim or alleged violation of the rules contained in the [Red] Handbook by either the Company or an employee represented by the Union shall be subject to the grievance procedure [in] this agreement.”

A “grievance” was defined in the CBA as “any compliant or dispute that may arise between the Company, the Union or bargaining unit employee(s) as to the meaning, application or claimed violation of the terms of [the CBA].”

An arbitrator issued an award finding that substitution of the safety handbook would require collective bargaining. The Company appealed that finding to federal court, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded the scope of his authority (which was limited to interpreting the CBA) by deciding whether the Company had “unilateral right to replace the safety handbook.”

The district court disagreed, finding that the arbitrator’s holding that collective bargaining was required before replacing the handbook flowed directly from an interpretation of the CBA, and “easily” withstood the court’s scope of review.

The take-away from this decision is the Court’s explanatory footnote regarding its limited scope of review of the arbitrator’s decision. The Court points out that whether or not it agrees with an arbitrator’s decision is immaterial, because a court may not overrule an arbitrator simply because it disagrees with the arbitrator’s interpretation of the CBA. So long as the arbitrator is “even arguably construing or applying the contract,” even a court’s finding that the arbitrator “committed serious error” or made an “improvident, even silly, factfinding” does not allow that court to refuse to enforce the award.