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 The trial is falling apart, as SEIU has withdrawn 80 percent of its claims, but it was never about the courtroom drama anyway: the real reason they're in front of a judge is that growing numbers of unhappy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.
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.
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.
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.