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Veteran Arbitrator Is at the Wheel in GM-UAW Standoff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 74, Thomas Roberts finds himself in the hot seat again.

The Los Angeles-based arbitrator, who for 40 years has been resolving labor disputes in such diverse businesses as professional baseball and aviation, is emerging as a key player in the United Auto Workers strikes that have brought operations at General Motors Corp. to a virtual standstill.

The energetic Roberts--regarded as a rare superstar in the unheralded arbitration arena--is expected sometime in the next few days to hear arguments from GM and union officials on the legality of the strikes at two Flint, Mich., parts plants.

If he rules that the walkouts are illegal, GM would likely seek an order forcing the 9,200 striking UAW members back to work and seek recovery of more than $1 billion in strike-related damages. If he doesn’t, the strikes could drag on indefinitely.

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The high-stakes dispute, which enters its seventh week today, is being felt nationwide. On Thursday, the government reported that industrial production fell sharply because of GM’s strike-related cutbacks.

GM has already closed 25 assembly plants and scores of parts factories and laid off 179,000 workers. The company’s losses are approaching $2 billion as dealers are running out of vehicles and suppliers are laying off workers.

Roberts is well aware that his decision will have huge ramifications for the nation’s largest industrial company, its 223,000 hourly workers and the communities that house their plants.

While Roberts declined to discuss the UAW-GM arbitration directly, he said in a telephone interview Thursday that “I feel a very heavy responsibility. I hope and feel I can do something toward bringing a settlement of the issues.”

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Roberts, a former union member who owns two GM-badged cars (a Cadillac DeVille and a Buick Regal), has handled big cases before.

In September 1987, he ruled that Major League Baseball owners colluded to restrict the movement of free agents. The case was the first of three that has cost club owners more than $260 million to date. He also oversaw salary-arbitration cases involving star players. One of the most prominent was his decision in 1983 to award Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela $1 million, making him the first player to win that much in arbitration.

While baseball has turned the spotlight on Roberts from time to time, the sport makes up a small fraction of his work. The rest involves arbitration of disputes in entertainment, broadcasting, manufacturing and government.

Roberts, a resident of Rolling Hills, has lived his entire life in Southern California. He has been married for 37 years and has two grown children and three grandchildren. He walks three miles every morning for exercise and has no plans to retire.

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“I enjoy what I am doing too much,” he said.

After serving in World War II, he attended Loyola University with the aid of the GI Bill and earned a degree in industrial relations. He went to work for Douglas Aircraft Co. and attended Loyola Law School at night, graduating in 1957. During the summers, he worked as a union laborer digging ditches.

He heard his first arbitration case in 1958. Roberts, a lifelong baseball fan and a Dodgers season-ticket holder, broke into baseball arbitration in 1974.

In 1986, he arbitrated a dispute involving the inclusion of random drug-testing clauses in individual player contracts. Roberts ruled against the league, saying that such clauses violated the labor agreement between the owners and players and had to be negotiated as part of the broader contract.

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The ruling infuriated the owners, who promptly fired Roberts. But the players union appealed Roberts’ dismissal because it came while he had already begun arbitration of their collusion charges regarding free agency. Their grievance was upheld, and Roberts was reinstated.

While baseball has brought Roberts the largest notoriety, he said he is just as proud of other complex cases he has handled. One that stands out is sorting out the seniority rights of 6,900 pilots in the 1986 merger of Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines.

“It was complex and important,” he said, “since seniority means everything to a pilot, determining things like pay, vacation and routes they fly.”

Roberts has also done work with local government. As a member of Los Angeles’ Employment Relations Board, he helps settle complaints of unfair labor practices by city agencies. He has arbitrated disputes between the Los Angeles Unified School District and the teachers union.

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A past president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, Roberts is respected by his colleagues, who describe him as intelligent, patient and, above all, fair.

“He is someone that everyone trusts,” said Los Angeles arbitrator Sara Adler, who works mostly in the entertainment industry. “He is imminently unflappable and imminently fair.”

Arbitrators thrive on their reputations. Since both labor and management must approve an appointment and can usually unilaterally dismiss an arbitrator, any suspicion of partiality will spell doom.

Howard Block, an arbitrator based in Tustin, said Roberts has a sterling reputation, as shown by his longevity as well as appointments to important positions.

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“He’s one of the premier arbitrators in the country,” Block said. “He has a clear understanding of collective bargaining and very good judgment. Tom is one of the superstars.”

Another friend, Edgar Jones, a retired UCLA law professor, said Roberts is not intimidated by the players or consequences: “When the hurricane hits, he is in the center where it’s calm. He is unlikely to bend just because the wind is blowing all around.”

Roberts has been the arbitrator for the GM-UAW national contract for 11 years.

In the current disputes, GM alleges that the UAW is striking over plant investment decisions, work allocations and parts sourcing. The company says these are non-strike issues that must be settled through bargaining or arbitration. The UAW says the walkouts are over line speedups and safety violations, issues the contract allows them to use as a basis for strikes.

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The biggest GM-UAW case that Roberts has arbitrated involved the closing of the Pontiac Fiero plant in Lansing, Mich., in 1988. The union argued that the shutdown violated a plant-closing moratorium. But Roberts ruled in GM’s favor, saying the closing was allowed under the contract because it had resulted from poor sales of the two-seat vehicle.

He has ruled for the union in other cases. In 1990, he ordered GM to reinstate four UAW workers who had been fired after walking off the job at a Michigan assembly plant to protest safety conditions.

Douglas Fraser, former UAW president and a labor professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said there is no clear indication from Roberts’ record which way he might rule in the current strikes. “But he’s certainly in the hot spot,” Fraser said.


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