Democracy on Trial: SEIU’s $25 million lawsuit against union reformers goes to court Monday

NewsMarch 17, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO—For the last year, SEIU officials in Washington, D.C. have been suing 29 local union reformers and whistleblowers who exposed the union’s corruption and backroom deals and helped healthcare workers protect their democratic right to join a new union after a hostile takeover.

On Monday, SEIU lawyers will have to argue their case in a trial that labor journalists and historians say is an unprecedented attack on workers’ right to a democratic voice in their union.

“Are elected union leaders accountable to the workers who elected them, or must they only take orders from above, even when workers oppose it?” asked Cal Winslow, historian and author of Labor’s Civil War in California: the NUHW Healthcare Workers’ Rebellion.

“SEIU is advancing a dangerous legal theory that leaders can be personally targeted to collect damages, even when there is no allegation of personal gain, simply because of a difference of opinion.”

The suit stems from SEIU’s hostile takeover of a local affiliate in January 2009. SEIU President Andy Stern seized control of California’s healthcare union because its members and elected leaders had opposed him on issues of bargaining strategy and union democracy. In response to the takeover, workers voted to form an independent, member-led union called the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Faced with petitions for more than 100,000 members to switch to NUHW, SEIU turned to aggressive legal maneuvers to suppress workers’ efforts and deny them a free choice.

In addition to using false charges to delay federal and state labor agencies from scheduling union elections, SEIU filed a civil lawsuit, threatening damages of $25 million against former local union staff and elected leaders who have been supporting workers’ struggle to take back back their union.

SEIU has accused these respected California activists of an ever-changing list of offenses, including stealing money from the union—a slanderous claim that is contradicted by SEIU’s own public statements and financial records, and appears nowhere in SEIU’s lawsuit.

SEIU has reportedly spent down $10 million of members’ dues money on four separate law firms to sue NUHW’s staff and elected leaders—even suing NUHW’s attorneys—and has squandered political capital by threatening many of the elected officials and labor leaders who helped raise money for NUHW’s legal defense.

In contrast, SEIU assigned just two junior attorneys to an ongoing lawsuit against Tyrone Freeman, a Los Angeles union official appointed by SEIU President Andy Stern who is accused of stealing more than $1.1 million from low-wage workers.

Despite SEIU’s legal strategy, NUHW has become California’s fastest-growing union, with thousands of workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and Kaiser facilities joining NUHW over the last year. Caregivers have chosen NUHW over SEIU in 7 out of 9 elections.

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The National Union of Healthcare Workers is California’s fastest-growing union, representing caregivers in every job classification. More than 100,000 workers in hospitals, nursing homes, and Kaiser Permanente facilities have petitioned for elections to join NUHW and win a strong, democratic voice at work. |