Labor and elected leaders vow to appeal limited award in SEIU’s lawsuit against union reformers

NewsApril 9, 2010

Twelve defendants cleared, but jury orders other former SEIU staff to repay salary and costs because they resisted orders from SEIU’s Washington, D.C. office

SAN FRANCISCO—SEIU’s lawsuit against 28 union reformers came to an end today, with SEIU’s central claims abandoned, twelve defendants cleared of all charges, and a judgment that amounts to a tiny fraction of SEIU’s own legal costs.

“Tens of thousands of healthcare workers are organizing with NUHW for a real voice at work and a democratic voice in their union, and that will continue in spite of this verdict,” said United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, who raised money for the reformers’ legal defense. “These reformers stood up for workers’ right to vote when SEIU tried to take it away, and that’s the only thing they’re guilty of. This judgment sets a bad precedent and the Fund for Union Democracy is committed to supporting an appeal.”

Attorneys for the defendants will ask the judge to set aside the jury’s verdict, and if the judge does not, they will appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) was founded by former SEIU members in January 2009, after SEIU’s hostile takeover of it’s most successful California affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). Within months, more than 100,000 UHW members had petitioned for elections to quit SEIU and join NUHW. SEIU responded with a lawsuit against the new union and 28 former UHW staff and officers.

For more than a year, SEIU’s Washington, D.C. officials have publically accused these union reformers of an ever-changing list of allegations that they claimed would be proven at trial. Instead, the trial showed most of SEIU’s claims were false. SEIU originally sued for $25 million but won just $737,850 from the jury, after spending more than $10 million in members’ dues on four separate law firms to make their case.

“At a time when workers across California are facing layoffs and cuts to their wages and benefits, it’s a shame that SEIU has wasted members’ dues money litigating a smear campaign,” said former California State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, who also contributed to the legal defense fund.

All of these claims were abandoned by SEIU or rejected by the court:

  • SEIU claimed UHW negotiators “left union contracts open” so that workers would have the right to vote in elections to join NUHW. SEIU lawyers withdrew that claim before the trial began.
  • SEIU accused union members of “sabotaging” union files and impairing the union’s handling of bargaining and grievances. But SEIU’s lawyers told the judge during the trial that they no longer claimed there was any delay or damage caused.
  • SEIU claimed UHW officers moved money into an outside account for their own personal use. But the jury heard how an independent audit showed the “outside account” was actually a nonprofit completely under union members’ control, and the nonprofit’s expenditures were legitimate. SEIU could not produce a single witness to vouch for the alleged misuse of funds.
  • SEIU claimed UHW officers stole $3 million from the union’s strike fund. According to the union’s own records, that $3 million was simply moved by the union’s rank-and-file executive board as a loan to the union’s general fund, where it remains to this day. SEIU did not even include this claim in the lawsuit.

The jury’s award includes only:

  • $4,000 for lost dues money that SEIU did not collect from members after contract extensions at some nursing homes were canceled to give members the right to strike. SEIU failed to show any harm to members from the cancellations, and witnesses testified that the decision to cancel contract extensions was made democratically by the rank-and-file bargaining team.
  • $6,600 for a portion of the salaries of union staff who helped workers oppose an order by SEIU’s Washington, D.C. office that would have split their union in half. SEIU argued this was a violation of SEIU’s constitution.
  • $7,250 for additional private security that SEIU hired after UHW members protested at two of their offices and the hotel where out-of-town staff were staying to prepare for the trusteeship.
  • $720,000 for the portion of UHW’s operating costs that allegedly went toward helping members oppose SEIU’s order and organize to resist a trusteeship.

“Watching this trial has made me so proud to be part of NUHW,” said Brenda Washington, an LVN at Grove Street Convalescent who attended the trial. “Our elected leaders took an oath to represent the members who elected them, not SEIU officials in Washington, D.C. They did exactly what the members asked them to do. They knew SEIU would target them personally and they still had the courage to do what was right.”

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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. |