In courts and hospitals, SEIU battles surging rival union
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.