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Amid news bulletins that Andy Stern is about to step down from his job as president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) , the union has fallen on its face again.
Its multi-million dollar law suit against the new National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in Federal Court in San Francisco has failed in its intent — to destroy the NUHW.
In trial SEIU called itself the United Healthcare Workers (UHW), its California healthcare workers local. This was deceptive; UHW, placed in trusteeship in January 2009, is run from SEIU headquarters in Washington, DC. We’ll use “SEIU” here for the sake of clarity. SEIU went to court with a civil lawsuit demanding $25 million in damages in a vain attempt to bankrupt NUHW and 28 of its leaders. The core of its case was that the defendants had conspired (for “personal power and profit”) – for years and all on “company” time – to leave SEIU and found a new union.
The trial was part and parcel of SEIU trustee Dave Regan’s promise “to drive a stake through the heart of NUHW”, doing so, he told Randy Shaw, to make certain that NUHW leaders “never again work in the labor movement.”
SEIU is the large organization of service workers, including hospital and healthcare workers. NUHW is a new union of healthcare workers, founded by the former leaders of UHW. They were relieved of their duties (fired) a year ago in January when SEIU trusteed and then wrecked UHW.
In fact the results of this trial, to be fair, were mixed. SEIU lost but NUHW did not win. The jury found no conspiracy, no theft, no violence, no sabotage and no “contracts left open” – and no evidence at all against twelve of the original defendants. There was no evidence of a penny stolen. The twelve “acquitted” won defense verdicts against SEIU. The jury did find the remaining defendants plus NUHW liable for $737,850. The largest part of this resulted from the jury’s calculations of the defendants’ alleged betrayal of fiduciary duties – the jury ordered that defendants pay back part of salaries and costs for January 2009, as well as small amounts for security and dues that SEIU allegedly failed to collect. In this they apparently agreed that the former UHW officers and staff obstructed the transfer from UHW of 65,000 long-term care members to the scandal ridden southern California local 6434 – without consent. And they seemed to agree that these defendants spend some time in January – before trusteeship – preparing to launch the new union, NUHW. This, to say the least, was not the crime of the century. Neither was it a big reward in a case where SEIU spent more than $10 million.
So, there is room for celebration, but not too much. And there are other significant points here, points that need making in part because coverage thus far emphasizes SEIU’s “paltry” recoveries. Also because they are perhaps more important, representing as they do labor’s civil war in California and the fundamental issues remain far from settled.
First, of course, comes the money. In a case that began with demands for $25 million, inevitably there will be the sense of relief; in contrast the $737,850 doesn’t in fact sound like much.
Indeed, $737,850 is not much in twenty-first century corporate America; it is the equivalent of a minor bonus for a junior executive in a bailed-out bank. It is next to nothing in the TV lives of our rich and famous. To the defendants against whom judgments were made, however, this victory must be bittersweet victory at best. When are they to worry? Now? How, god forbid, would they pay? In the future? When?
$73,850 is a lot of money for the Goldstein family, now living with this order. Glenn Goldstein, the son of a New York City truck driver is married, the father of two.; He has spent virtually his entire adult life organizing hospital workers – he was Director of Organizing for UHW when fired. He volunteers for NUHW.
Emily Gordon, 31, is ordered to pay $31,400. Gordon is married; her husband is a student. She worked since 2002 for the union as Assistant Director of Research. She was an activist in college. She is proud of union roots deep in her family history. Two great grandparents and one grandparent were garment workers. Her mom is in the teachers’ union – “unions have always been part of my family.”
Barbara Lewis now owes $66,000. Lewis grew up in Van Nuys. She attended community college then UC Berkeley. She is married, has two sons. While still a student, Lewis began working for the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 2 in San Francisco. She then took an assignment in Chicago, then Las Vegas, joined SEIU then moved to Southern California. There she became a leader in UHW’s hospital division. She was twice elected to UHW’s executive board.
Dan Martin is ordered to pay $66,000. Martin has been a member of SEIU or on staff since 1983. He was an elected administrative vice president of UHW, is married and has two daughters, both in college.” He now volunteers for NUHW. Martin says, “We’re lucky, you know, we have networks, friends, supporters. I’ve had to think about all those people out there on their own, every day people get rolled into court like this – they live in fear; this system is terrorizing people.”
But, for SEIU, the money ($25 million – $750,000, who cares?) was not important. Erica Boddie, SEIU’s paid member correspondent in the courtroom, told listeners in a post-trial press conference, “It’s not about the money, I don’t care if we only got $1.99, we proved a secret conspiracy.” Michelle Ringuette, SEIU Director of Strategic Affairs called the result “a slam dunk!” – “a victory for UHW members.”
OK, SEIU doesn’t care about the money. They spent millions to punish the above “conspirators.” Money has never been an object. How many millions spent on the pseudo-legal Marshall trusteeship hearings; how many more on parachuting Mary Kay Henry’s “warriors” into California, hundreds of staff; ten million was the estimate of SEIU’s June Fresno campaign; another ten million on this trial – Henry herself, a highly paid international vice president, we learned, had in her first weeks in California a driver and a full-time bodyguard. SEIU spent almost $2 million on a Blackwater style security firm. And it’s only the beginning. And the source of all this cash? The ever generous members – these millions come in the form of union dues, paid by service workers, including hospital workers, nursing home workers and home care workers.
What’s really going on here, then, money-wise? First, the fact is that nearly 700,000 of SEIU’s members reside in California. And second that SEIU is, above all, as Rose Ann De Moro of the California Nurses Association, once remarked, “a giant dues collection agency.” So, in this context $10 million on a trial is not so much after all. And, to make the point a little clearer, California Kaiser members alone send in $3.5 million to SEIU every single month.
But there was more than money was involved. The case was also about workers’ power – or “workers empowerment” in the language of the California healthcare workers. It was about democracy. The members and leaders of UHW (pre-trusteeship) led a 150,000 member, militant, democratic union, one governed from the bottom up, committed to worker empowerment. They did this in defiance of the headquarters SEIU regime – the corporate, top down monolith headquartered in Washington DC, led by Andy Stern.
The trial was held in the Federal Building, a stone and glass fortress-like structure just north of the Civic Center. The judge, William Alsup, still sports the Mississippi drawl of a southern gentleman; not to worry, I was assured. He was Harvard educated, a long time resident of San Francisco, at worst a “corporate liberal.” And, as he repeated ad nauseam, he “knew the law.”
Below Alsup, his clerks and reporters, then the jury on his right and the first string lawyers. In the back, two sets of pews. Across from our side, the five pews were packed with lawyers and more lawyers. Black suits, dark blue, dark grey, shiny shoes. Expensive haircuts. It’s worth recording this – four firms represented the plaintiffs (UHW): Bredhoff and Kaiser, Washington, DC; Rothner, Segall and Greenstone, Pasadena; Altshuler and Berzon, San Francisco; James and Hoffman; Washington, DC. James and Hoffman, “a professional corporation,” specializes in “labor and employment disputes.” Among its lawyers, Judith A. Scott, Chief Counsel for SEIU.
These lawyers made SEIU’s case. The crime, they argued, agreeing with the defense without saying so, was political. According to Gary Kohlman, lead attorney for SEIU, in this country there are rules and ones duty is to follow the rules. “Rules, rules, rules, ladies and gentlemen!” No exceptions. The defendants’ first obligation was to obey the rules set down in the SEIU constitution. They were to follow these rules and this constitution, he pronounced. All else, their obligation to their organization, to its members, to their own consciences was secondary. If Andy Stern says transfer the sixty-five thousand long term care workers, regardless of their preference, do it! There were rules and they were to be followed. It’s “the American way,” he said. Otherwise, yes he said this, “there would be chaos.”
SEIU sees the real crime first as an example of a violation of its “one voice” – “one strategy” policy, a system that has made dissent treason in one of the most centralized unions in the country.
The defendants, all fired staff of UHW, joined by NUHW members and supporters, also crowded into five pews. They were, without any disparagement whatsoever, a rather ordinary looking lot (not always fashion statements), varying in age from twenties to sixties, modestly dressed, no celebrities, people known mostly for their dedication to their union and its members. They were (I think they would agree) just workers in the workers’ movement
At the lawyers’ table on our side, Dan Siegel, of Siegel and Yee, Oakland, CA, plus two of the firm’s lawyers and two volunteers. I read in the Recorder, “a legal journal” published in Oakland, that NUHW is paying Siegel a flat monthly amount; Siegel reports he “prefers to think of it as a kind of contingency.” “If they get the union on a solid footing and begin to accumulate funds, perhaps they’ll be able to pay us a little more for our time.” He added that “taking on this client wasn’t really about money.”
SEIU abandoned most of its case at the beginning. No criminal charges were ever filed, no charges of theft or violence. The damage claim of $25 million was down to $4 million by jury time.
So Siegel and his team did pretty well in the circumstances. These could hardly have been more unfair. The judge disallowed the core of Siegel’s case. The judge allowed Kohlman constant interruptions in the course of Siegel’s opening statement. The judge routinely advised the jury not to consider the defendant’s motives, only the plaintiff’s most narrow charges. I guess, given their limited awards, the jury was not entirely convinced.
The larger point, of course, is this. What were workers doing in this setting? Why were vital disagreements in the workers’ movement being contested here? Judge Alsup explained that the case was analogous to a dispute between the Bank of America and a branch office. No one on the jury was a union member. The answer is that the defendants were dragged into this temple of property by money – in the plausible belief that this alone would defeat them. In pre-trial motions, as Carl Finamore has revealed, SEIU offered to drop the case if NUHW would dissolve – and pay SEIU $13 million. Nothing doing.
Our history is replete with workers in the dock – charged with conspiracy. The very first unions were called “criminal combinations – members subject to injunctions, fines and imprisonment and both in civil and criminal cases. There was no evidence against the individual 1886 Haymarket martyrs, just the “conspiracy.” In 1918, one hundred members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were charged in Chicago with conspiring against the government. This trial (the presiding judge was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, known also as the disgraced Commissioner in the 1920’s baseball scandals) and subsequent convictions were instrumental in breaking the IWW. In the twenties, the federal case against two foreign born workers, Sacco and Vanzetti, ended in execution for conspiracy to murder; there was vast support for these men, worldwide. In 1941, the socialist leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters were tried then imprisoned; their real crime was the construction of a powerful union; their conviction was crucial in the establishment of the infamous Teamster bureaucracy. In the 1970, I myself witnessed the coal miners’ strike movements – strikes to win the right to strike over, among other things, safety issues. They too were the targets of furious companies and compliant federal judges. They were fined millions.
Today, their union is a shadow of its former self. One result, 29 miners just killed in West Virginia in an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine. We are treated to this grim spectacle thanks to the huge and viciously Massey Energy Company.
We have now learned that SEIU in southern California prefers no union at the University of Southern California Medical Center to one led by NUHW. This certainly was the case at memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa in December, where SEIU contested the representational election despite having not one worker publically willing to support it. And it seems to be the case in California’s nursing homes, where SEIU carpetbaggers wheel and deal with the employers – which facilities will be union, which won’t? Well, healthcare workers are not coal miners, true enough. Their work, however, is vital, is it not, indispensible? It is dangerous. Its rewards are not lucrative. John Borsos has called nursing homes the “sweatshops of the twenty first century.”
Healthcare workers need unions. We all do. But what kind?
We were told that Andy Stern would testify, also Dave Regan, now the trustee of SEIU-UHW. They didn’t. Dan Siegel, in his closing statement, lamented not having the chance to ask Stern just how the SEIU constitution could be considered democratic. And why 65,000 workers could be transferred without consent? And why no free choice of unions?
The trial is over for now, how to sum up? As Randy Shaw has suggested, SEIU’s suit ultimately failed – and in this most important sense. NUHW remains in the field, active, stronger than ever. Its reputation as a militant democratic union is untarnished. The personal attacks on its leaders, especially Sal Rosselli, will, if anything, have backfired.
In the meantime, scores of representational elections will be fought in the months to come. Thus far, there is a pattern – unmentionable in court. The workers prefer NUHW. In Santa Rosa at memorial Hospital in December, NUHW defeated SEIU 283 – 13. In January in southern California nurses at Kaiser Sunset defeated 736 to 36, Kaiser professional workers chose NUHW 906 – 218. At Doctors Hospital in San Pablo it was NUHW 158- 24. The struggle continues.
“Watching this trial has made me so proud to be part of NUHW. 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.” Brenda Washington, LVN, San Francisco Community Convalescent
A footnote: Legal defense costs are now in the hundreds for thousands of dollars. SEIU’s clear intention continues to be to humiliate and break these people – all good union men and women.
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CAL WINSLOW has written CounterPunch articles on the subject of the SEIU and NUHW, including “Stern’s Gang Seizes UHW Union Hall,” February 2, 2009. He is also the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies ( forthcoming, April 2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org