WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, dividing 5-4, narrowed significantly yesterday the legal duty of companies to let an arbitrator settle disputes with workers that come up after a union contract expires.
A company need not live up to a promise under the old contract to arbitrate all disputes, the court majority declared. If a disagreement with workers or their union does not involve worker rights that are clearly protected by the contract -- rights that cannot be changed by management alone -- it does not have to be arbitrated, the court said.
Under federal labor law, a company is forbidden to act on its own to change working conditions assured by a contract; management must bargain over changes it wants to make in those conditions.
But, the majority said yesterday, if a court concludes that a dispute that develops once the contract has expired does not involve working conditions assured by the contract, the company no longer is obliged to take the matter to an arbitrator.
A duty to arbitrate, written into a contract, does not ordinarily survive once a union contract has run out, unless the parties themselves expressly promise to keep it alive, according to the ruling.
The ruling freed a California company that prints business and personal checks, Litton Financial Printing Division of Litton Business Systems Inc., from any duty to ask an arbitrator to settle a dispute over its layoff of printers at a plant in Santa Clara, Calif. The case was Litton vs. National Labor Relations Board (No. 90-285).