SEIU's Bogus Trial Backfires

Twenty-six leaders of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) are in a San Francisco court facing bogus charges made by the Service Employees International Union. The trial is falling apart, as SEIU has withdrawn 80 percent of its claims, but it was never about the courtroom drama anyway: the real reason they're in front of a judge is that growing numbers of unhappy SEIU members are leaving SEIU to join NUHW.

So SEIU is trying legal action, along with a raft of other tactics—including lies, intimidation, bribes, alliances with management against members, and arbitrary removal of elected officers and 2,000 stewards—to slow NUHW down.

The legal theory SEIU is pushing in this trial deserves attention, however, because it raises enormous stakes for the future of the labor movement. It’s saying that unions should behave like corporations: that locally elected officers should answer to headquarters even when that means going against the members who elected them.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

The leaders of NUHW used to be the leaders of the SEIU-affiliated United Healthcare Workers West. But after these UHW leaders defied the autocratic dictates and sell-out practices of SEIU President Andy Stern (who among other things wanted to break up their 150,000-member local by stripping away 65,000 of its homecare workers), the International union arbitrarily removed all of them from office in January 2009 and put UHW into trusteeship.

These leaders then founded NUHW. They’ve worked on a shoestring budget with a committed group of volunteer members and staff to beat SEIU in 7 of 9 election campaigns in a year, bringing 3,357 members into NUHW, most of them SEIU members.

SEIU freaked out.

It has brought a $25 million lawsuit against NUHW in hopes of tying up these 26 NUHW leaders in court and bankrupting the union.

But SEIU faces several serious problems. First, it will likely lose the lawsuit. There is no merit to the SEIU charges and never has been.

For the past year, since NUHW was founded, SEIU leaders have barraged members with unsubstantiated charges that NUHW leaders took $3 million from the UHW strike fund, “sabotaged” bargaining and grievances of UHW members, left contracts open, and misused UHW member lists—all in an effort to keep tens of thousands of unhappy SEIU members from leaving SEIU and joining NUHW.

But with no evidence to substantiate any of these charges, all of them have been abandoned by SEIU since the trial began.

WHAT’S LEFT

After dropping 80 percent of the original lawsuit, what remains is a series of equally dubious claims. The SEIU case hinges on proving that the 26 defendants used union resources and staff time to form a new union. SEIU’s lawyers claim there was a “secret cabal” of top officers and a document about making the union “ungovernable.” NUHW attorneys point out the document is one staffer’s private note to herself, which wasn’t sent to anyone else—in other words, not a policy.

SEIU’s claims keep eroding. The amount SEIU claims the old UHW leaders misappropriated to build a new union has been reduced from $25 million to $4.18 million. Of that, $1.7 million was for security costs—most of which were incurred by SEIU after the trusteeship. The old UHW officers had nothing to do with hiring these security agents, nor making these expenditures.

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Another $2.25 million of the $4.18 million in dispute is the salaries paid to the local’s 400 staffers in the month before the trusteeship. Bizarrely, SEIU is claiming that it was inappropriate for the local to pay its employees.

The trial judge made it clear that resisting trusteeship is legal and legitimate. UHW and SEIU were locked in a political dispute, which 110 elected rank-and-file leaders of UHW repeatedly voted to pursue, and which thousands of members supported in demonstrations and petitions. The judge rightly decided that fighting over the policies and direction of the union is not a crime.

That leaves $225,000 in dispute, dues that went uncollected in the wake of the trusteeship. Many UHW members who wanted to join NUHW after it was formed asked their employer to take them off automatic dues deduction. If SEIU wanted their dues, SEIU should bill them, they responded. These members did not refuse to pay dues, and SEIU still hasn’t gone back to try to recover them!

What has clearly emerged from the trial is SEIU’s willingness to crush a local that openly challenged its authority. Estimates of SEIU’s legal tab run to about $10 million thus far.

Testimony and documents have revealed that SEIU leaders had made up their minds to take over UHW long before the charade of trusteeship hearings played out. They rented secret offices, contacted employers to inform them that union representatives would be changing, and—disgustingly—hired a private security firm to spy on their own members while the members rallied against the International’s heavy-handedness.

FLOODGATES

For SEIU, the trial is a desperate attempt to staunch the hemorrhaging of members in California, a top national goal that must be accomplished at any cost. SEIU has 700,000 members in California out of a national membership of 1.8 million.

The trial comes in the middle of a massive NUHW campaign to recruit 50,000 SEIU members at Kaiser hospitals. If NUHW succeeds, such a huge victory could open the floodgates of a much larger exodus from the increasingly discredited SEIU, not only in California but beyond.

SEIU’s second serious problem is that its credibility with members has evaporated. Members are frustrated and furious because SEIU has stripped away their democratic rights, given away important gains members worked for many years to achieve, and ignored and sold out members’ grievances. More than 100,000 SEIU members in California signed petitions within six weeks of the trusteeship to leave SEIU and join NUHW. Now, SEIU members from outside the old UHW have contacted NUHW and expressed an interest in joining, too.

A third serious problem for SEIU is that NUHW has attracted many allies both in the labor movement and outside it, while SEIU has become increasingly isolated.

For those allies, this trial—and the larger fight between the two unions—asks big questions: who should control the labor movement, and what is a union’s mission? Is it to serve top officers, even if their goals run contrary to the members', or to serve the members?


Paul Krehbiel is a former SEIU Local 660 staffer in Southern California who volunteers for NUHW. Head to www.nuhw.org to learn more about the trial and how supporters can help.

Comments

Laborforce (not verified) | 04/02/10

Hi Paul
It is so important for workers to understand that union leaders work for workers and not the other way around. While the former local leaders had done an oustanding job in negotiating the best contracts in the healthcare industry in California. The new gain power from Andy Stern to cut and bypass the local union constitution and rights in negotiation was a way to remove local worker participation and authentically elected leaders. Democracy, transparency, independance, autonomy and participation are the tenets of a well local union. Their governance and organization should be of hands of the international union. Yes trusteeships are designed for workers to fight a corrupt local leaders but as we have seen it in this battle is a knife with a double blade that allows a corrupt International Organization ,SEIU, to destroy or dismantle, out of fear, a well run local. The International leaders made legislation and striped workers rights out of the international constitution and bylaws when new amendments give absolut power to the president. That is wrong, inmoral and unethical. The international is a tax hungry international that all they care about is money, power and absolute control. Union should be from workers, for workers and by workers if staff and appointed leaders do not follow the will of workers and respect the local organization, workers ought to fire these corrupt leaders or create a new organization.

aprildawn (not verified) | 04/02/10

Thank you Paul for your views. I want to add my comments to your writing as I have been a member of UHW (SEIU-UHW) for 16 years and have experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. About 15 of those 16 years have been in the capacity of a shop steward at a Kaiser facility.

The last 9 days of testimony have been enlightening, to say the least, but not a revelation to me (or several co-workers and shop stewards.) Your description of "How it all Started" is almost accurate. "The International removed all of them from office in January 2009 and put UHW into Trusteeship. These leaders then founded NUHW." Not exactly. Those leaders started planning to dump SEIU back in 2007, spent all of 2008 progressively ignoring the members (no help with higher level grievances, phone calls, facility visits and support of members), and yes- they cancelled the extension of expired contracts while these contracts were in extended negotiations- without notifying the affected members, even the bargaining team members.

So yes, it is not illegal to resist the International, oppose the Trusteeship, or hate Andy Stern. And yes, there were major pissing matches between Sal Rosselli and Andy Stern- a political dispute. And personally, I don't give a crap about these politics. What I care about is what I have seen behind the scenes and up close n personal- how the former leadership made us so pissed of with lack of representation that we hated our union, how the former leadership asked us to circulate the decertification petitions (before and after the Trusteeship) and lied about the consequences of decertifying at that time (yes, we went to the SF Labor Board and did our research!), and how they stooped to new lows in trying to get existing UHW members (like me) to support their "under-dog,fight the power, anti-establishment, smaller-is-better (yeah right!)BS!!!