By Christopher D. Cook
For two weeks, in the marble-walled modernist grandeur of the Ninth Circuit U.S. District court in San Francisco, I watched nearly a dozen well-dressed lawyers for the Service Employees International Union — long my favorite union and one I’ve written about and marched with over the years — sue the bejeezus out of two-dozen former SEIU comrades-in-arms, some of labor’s most committed soldiers.
Judge William Alsup’s courtroom was packed and tense every day for two weeks, patrolled watchfully by U.S. marshals as former coworkers shot glares across the aisle and rushed by each other in the hallway outside. “This is like a bad family reunion,” one told me. Indeed, there’s a painful, often quite personal fight inside the family of labor — a fight one can only hope will lead to strong, deep democratic unionism down the road.
In the latest chapter of a saga that’s simmered to a boil over four years, SEIU sued 24 former staffers of its powerful 150,000-member Bay Area local, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), alleging they used the union’s money and resources to create a rival organization. Since SEIU took over the old local in a bitter trusteeship fight in January 2009, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), led by former UHW president Sal Rosselli, has been organizing workers in droves, challenging SEIU’s hold on health care workers in California.
In the end, following grueling testimonies and cross-examinations, it came to this: on April 9, the jury hit NUHW and 16 of its leaders with a $1.5 million penalty (which might be reduced to $737,850 depending on Alsup’s interpretation of the jury’s intent). It’s a lot of money, but far less than SEIU’s original claim seeking $25 million, and the appeals are likely to drag on into next year.
After dozens of interviews and whispered conversations in the hallways outside Alsup’s courtroom, I was left wondering: how could this be happening? At a time of historic lows in union membership (7.2 percent in the private sector last year) and a recession that may never end for workers, how could SEIU, once the darling of the progressive labor movement, be embroiled in a brutal war with one of its flagship former locals? How could these two unions be tearing each other apart, exchanging ugly accusations that threaten to further tarnish labor’s tenuous reputation? All at a time when California unemployment sits stubbornly at 12.5 percent and more than 90 percent of workers remain unorganized. Hospital executives who are accustomed to tangling with a unified labor front must be thanking their lucky stars.
But this isn’t some union corruption story or simply a scuffle for personal power. Beyond the name-calling lie crucial questions about how unions function, about whose voices are heard both in union offices and on the shop floor. How much voice will workers have in union decisions, not just about break rooms and arguments with the boss, but in the shape and direction of the labor movement?
Ultimately this fight won’t be decided by any jury or judge: despite the verdict, NUHW and its volunteer organizers are pressing on with SEIU for the right to represent California’s health care workers, 400,000 of whom currently pay dues to SEIU. Over the past year, more than 80,000 of those dues-payers have signed petitions to join NUHW, which has won seven of nine elections of health care workers called so far. With more big elections coming soon, most notably among 47,000 Kaiser Permanente workers this June, the stakes are only getting higher.
In a nutshell, the two sides argue thus: SEIU contends that Rosselli and company flouted the will of President Andy Stern, and ultimately its members, by refusing to abide by Stern’s decisions on a union consolidation. That led to a trusteeship of Rosselli’s local, with its leaders allegedly using SEIU resources to form their own union. Rosselli and NUHW insist they were boxed into an untenable corner by Stern’s centralization of power in Washington, D.C., at the expense of locals and workers and that they tried many times to resolve disputes internally, and only broke away to form a new union after they were forced out by Stern.
To convince a jury of its claims, SEIU amassed a formidable legal team drawing from four firms at a cost of roughly $5 million, according to SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman. (An expert witness hired by SEIU testified the union paid him roughly $300,000 just to prepare testimony for the case; defendants say the trial cost SEIU closer to $10 million.) Whatever the number, it’s an awful lot of time and money that could be spent organizing new workers and winning strong contracts instead.
Asked if he thinks the trial is worth the expense, Trossman said, “I think members of the union, when this is over, are going to get the truth of what happened — that they directly used union resources … to hold onto personal power.”
Dan Siegel, NUHW’s chief attorney, casts it differently: “This case is about punishing the defendants and sending a message” to other union dissidents across the country.
A LONG-TERM BATTLE
The rift that ended up in federal court has its roots in a 2006 move by Stern to consolidate California’s long-term health care workers, such as home care and nursing home employees, into a single statewide local — a move that would peel away 65,000 long-term care workers from Rosselli’s union.
The most likely beneficiary of the consolidation was the Los Angeles-based Long-Term Care Workers Union, local 6434, headed by Tyrone Freeman, who had been fending off corruption charges (allegedly stealing more than $1 million in union funds for personal gain) since 2002, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Nowhere else but in California did SEIU attempt splitting long-term care and acute care workers into different unions,” said John Marshall, an SEIU strategic researcher who resigned in protest of UHW’s trusteeship, but who remains active in the labor movement. “But it’s worse than that — here SEIU proposed forcing long-term care workers into a local that was widely known to be corrupt, that had contracts with substandard wages and benefits. And on top of it all Stern and SEIU refused to allow those workers to vote on whether or not the transfer should occur.”
When Freeman’s alleged corruption became front-page news in the Times in 2008, and even after SEIU put the L.A. local in trusteeship later that year, Stern continued to push the consolidation. Rosselli resisted, arguing the shift would weaken workers’ voice and standards; wages for workers in Local 6434 were often far lower than those for their counterparts up north, and the mounting corruption charges didn’t bode well for union bargaining power or democracy.
SEIU’s Trossman insists union leaders were not aware of the Freeman allegations until they appeared in the L.A. Times, though one of those stories quotes an unnamed inside source saying Trossman knew of the charges as early as 2002. But Trossman said the issue was not Freeman. “The proposal was to create a new long-term care local in California, and by the time that decision was made in January 2009, Tyrone Freeman was already long out of the picture,” he told us, insisting the long-term care decision was made after hearings and an “advisory member vote.”
Yet 15 months after the takeover of UHW, the consolidation of long-term care workers remains on hold.
Friction between Stern and Rosselli — over the merger, leadership, and labor movement strategy — heated up throughout 2007 and 2008; Rosselli was unanimously booted off of Stern’s “kitchen cabinet” of labor leaders, and removed from his post as president of SEIU’s California State Council.
Then on Jan. 22, 2009, an SEIU-commissioned report by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall recommended trusteeship — if Rosselli’s union didn’t abide by the transfer of its long-term care workers. A few days later Rosselli and the UHW executive board sent Stern a letter saying they would abide by the merger — if the UHW rank and file could vote on it first. No deal: on Jan. 27, UHW was put into trusteeship: its buildings were locked up, security guards patrolled the perimeters, and many of the deposed union staff camped out on the floors of their old offices.
On the afternoon of the 27th, Rosselli, who had been reelected UHW president earlier that month, spoke to cheering supporters: “[It’s] your right to determine what union you want to be in!”
NUHW members insist it’s never been about Rosselli or the other defendants. “We are not just a bunch of lemmings — we do what we believe,” said Tonya Britton, a Fremont convalescent home worker. “They couldn’t make it this far if there weren’t all of us members … When I heard about the trusteeship, I wanted a union that was for members, not top-down. We were making gains. Now it seems we’re doing nothing but fighting.”
Christopher D. Cook is a former Bay Guardian city editor. He has written on labor for Mother Jones, Harper’s, The Economist and others. This story was funded in part by spot.us.