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CHICAGO � AT&T Inc., with backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the company says would let a lot more labor disputes boil over into arbitration. The case grew out of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers lawsuit against AT&T’s Midwest subsidiary, Illinois Bell Telephone Co., in which the union sought to compel arbitration concerning new “work performance guidelines” the company imposed on sales staff. Illinois Bell said there was no right to arbitration because the guidelines weren’t part of the collective bargaining agreement. Local Union No. 21 v. Illinois Bell, No. 06-705. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois sided with the union in April 2006 and the 7th Circuit supported the ruling in a 2-1 decision. When AT&T asked in August for an en banc review by the appeals court, it lost the bid even though four members of the court, including Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, agreed there should be one. With four other judges opting against review and three not taking part in the decision, there wasn’t the required majority. “The decision in the 7th Circuit overthrew the consensual basis of arbitration by effectively making every dispute between the union and the company subject to arbitration,” said Richard Quist, an AT&T associate general counsel. “That would have impact not only on us, but on labor/management relations throughout the country.” Barry Bennett, a partner at Dowd, Bloch & Bennett in Chicago who is representing the union, counters that case law since the 1960s has favored sending disputes to arbitration if the contract doesn’t clearly exclude it from that resolution path. “There’s a strong presumption in favor of arbitrability,” Bennett said. “Parties that have negotiated contracts since then have been well aware of that and are well aware of the steps to take to exclude something from arbitration.” The 7th Circuit majority opinion points out that under AT&T’s new guidelines, workers were susceptible to losing their jobs if they didn’t meet certain sales quotas. As the bargaining agent of the employees stipulated in the “recognition clause” of the work contract, the union has the right to call for arbitration, the court said. “Given the presumption in favor of arbitrability, the union has met its burden,” the court wrote. Still, AT&T argues in its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court that the 7th Circuit ruling not only conflicts with a 1980 9th Circuit decision authored by now Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, but also contradicts “fundamental principals” on arbitration set forth by the high court itself.

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