An inconvenient war

In courts and hospitals, SEIU battles surging rival union


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.