IN a finding that could prompt huge savings in litigation costs for US labor and management, a survey released yesterday reveals that workers strongly favor resolving workplace disputes through arbitration rather than in court.
When wrangling with management, 83 percent of workers support arbitration over lawsuits or appealing to a federal agency, finds ''Worker Representation and Participation Survey: Wave Two.''
The workers' attitude complements the growing tendency of managers to forgo courts for an in-house system that resolves employee conflict through investigation, mediation, and arbitration.
Experts on labor litigation say the force driving the trend is simple: money. ''It costs at least $10,000 to try an employment case today and most people don't have that kind of money,'' says Lewis Maltby at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. The survey suggests that arbitration could help stem the runaway growth in the number of costly employment grievance suits in US courts -- a figure that ballooned 430 percent between 1971 and 1991, according to federal statistics.
The savings for management are also significant. A 1993 survey by Deloitte & Touche found 67 percent of the respondents who used arbitration or other alternatives to lawsuits reporting lower costs.
Moreover, workers ''see an arbitration system for resolving disputes about workplace statutory rights as a potential 'win-win' situation, with both employers and employees gaining by avoiding courts or regulatory agencies,'' says a report on the poll by Richard Freeman of Harvard University, and Joel Rogers at the University of Wisconsin.
But some experts question the fairness of the procedure. In many cases, companies determine the terms for arbitration. Some businesses require workers to accept binding arbitration as a condition of employment, a condition recently upheld by the Supreme Court. Still, managers recognize increasingly that it is in their self-interest to establish fair arbitration programs, industry executives say.