To become a labor arbitrator, a person needs many years of experience in labor relations and collective bargaining. Many arbitrators retire from a career in law or human resources or union representation and launch their careers as a neutral. In recent decades, this is the most common path; a retirement income is necessary during those early years when labor and management are reluctant to select someone they perceive as new or untested. Even people with a long career in labor relations as an advocate struggle to get recognized as a neutral. In fact, for practitioners entering the profession, it can be an unpleasant surprise that the respect one earned in their field doesn’t translate to business very easily.
Even with a primary income (either from retirement or household sources), a new arbitrator can find themselves with a lot of time on their hands. When I started out, more experienced arbitrators recommended that I line up a hobby and some volunteer work that could structure my time until my practice took off. At first, I ran a lot and worked out, drove my kids to seemingly infinite practices and games, and started writing memoir and fiction for pleasure. I also volunteered for our local Little League board and the Oakland Police Commission. It’s safe to say my plate is now overflowing.
I was reminded of this admonition today when I read an obituary for an arbitrator from Oregon who passed recently. The obituary noted that she would be missed by the labor relations and accordion communities. I found this comment to be both funny and sweet. Clearly this esteemed woman had committed herself to playing the accordion to enrich her life, developing friendships and connections along the way. Most arbitrators have some aspect of their life that is little known to the parties that appear before them. I know of other fiction writers, stamp collectors, private pilots, movie buffs, photographers, swimmers, golfers and jazz musicians. I wonder if there are other accordion-playing arbitrators?