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decided: April 7, 1986.



White, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Brennan, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and Marshall, J., joined, post, p. 652.

Author: White

[ 475 U.S. Page 644]

 JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue presented in this case is whether a court asked to order arbitration of a grievance filed under a collective-bargaining agreement must first determine that the parties intended to arbitrate the dispute, or whether that determination is properly left to the arbitrator.


AT&T Technologies, Inc. (AT&T or the Company), and the Communications Workers of America (the Union) are parties to a collective-bargaining agreement which covers telephone equipment installation workers. Article 8 of this agreement

[ 475 U.S. Page 645]

     establishes that "differences arising with respect to the interpretation of this contract or the performance of any obligation hereunder" must be referred to a mutually agreeable arbitrator upon the written demand of either party. This Article expressly does not cover disputes "excluded from arbitration by other provisions of this contract."*fn1 Article 9 provides that, "subject to the limitations contained in the provisions of this contract, but otherwise not subject to the provisions of the arbitration clause," AT&T is free to exercise certain management functions, including the hiring and placement of employees and the termination of employment.*fn2 "When lack of work necessitates Layoff," Article 20 prescribes the order in which employees are to be laid off.*fn3

On September 17, 1981, the Union filed a grievance challenging AT&T's decision to lay off 79 installers from its Chicago base location. The Union claimed that, because there was no lack of work at the Chicago location, the

[ 475 U.S. Page 646]

     planned layoffs would violate Article 20 of the agreement. Eight days later, however, AT&T laid off all 79 workers, and soon thereafter, the Company transferred approximately the same number of installers from base locations in Indiana and Wisconsin to the Chicago base. AT&T refused to submit the grievance to arbitration on the ground that under Article 9 the Company's decision to lay off workers when it determines that a lack of work exists in a facility is not arbitrable.

The Union then sought to compel arbitration by filing suit in federal court pursuant to § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U. S. C. § 185(a).*fn4 Communications Workers of America v. Western Electric Co., No. 82 C 772 (ND Ill., Nov. 18, 1983). Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court reviewed the provisions of Articles 8, 9, and 20, and set forth the parties' arguments as follows:

"Plaintiffs interpret Article 20 to require that there be an actual lack of work prior to employee layoffs and argue that there was no such lack of work in this case. Under plaintiffs' interpretation, Article 20 would allow the union to take to arbitration the threshold issue of whether the layoffs were justified by a lack of work. Defendant interprets Article 20 as merely providing a sequence for any layoffs which management, in its exclusive judgment, determines are necessary. Under defendant's interpretation, Article 20 would not allow for an arbitrator to decide whether the layoffs were warranted by a lack of work but only whether the company

[ 475 U.S. Page 647]

     followed the proper order in laying off the employees." App. to Pet. for Cert. 10A.

Finding that "the union's interpretation of Article 20 was at least 'arguable,'" the court held that it was "for the arbitrator, not the court to decide whether the union's interpretation has merit," and accordingly, ordered the Company to arbitrate. Id., at 11A.

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Communications Workers of America v. Western Electric Co., 751 F.2d 203 (1984). The Court of Appeals understood the District Court to have ordered arbitration of the threshold issue of arbitrability. Id., at 205, n. 4. The court acknowledged the "general rule" that the issue of arbitrability is for the courts to decide unless the parties stipulate otherwise, but noted that this Court's decisions in Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574 (1960), and Steelworkers v. American Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564 (1960), caution courts to avoid becoming entangled in the merits of a labor dispute under the guise of deciding arbitrability. From this observation, the court announced an "exception" to the general rule, under which "a court should compel arbitration of the arbitrability issue where the collective bargaining agreement contains a standard arbitration clause, the parties have not clearly excluded the arbitrability issue from arbitration, and deciding the issue would entangle the court in interpretation of substantive provisions of the collective bargaining agreement and thereby involve consideration of the merits of the dispute." 751 F.2d, at 206.

All of these factors were present in this case. Article 8 was a "standard arbitration clause," and there was "no clear, unambiguous exclusion from arbitration of terminations predicated by a lack of work determination." Id., at 206-207. Moreover, although there were "colorable arguments" on both sides of the exclusion issue, if the court were to decide this question it would ...

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