By Christopher D. Cook
In a mixed ruling this morning (April 9), a nine-member U.S. District Court jury awarded $1.5 million to the Service Employees International Union in its ongoing campaign to stymie a rival union created by former SEIU staffers, in a mixed ruling that's unlikely to resolve the unions' protracted battle over members and leadership in the labor movement.
Coming after a tense and bruising two-week trial and several days of jury deliberations, the verdict includes a $724,000 penalty against the insurgent National Union of Healthcare Workers, led by Sal Rosselli, former long-time president of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West (UHW). Rosselli and 15 of his NUHW colleagues were also hit with smaller penalties ranging from $30,000 to $74,000.
The SEIU lawsuit originally sought $25 million in damages for an array of allegations that its former staffers, who launched NUHW a day after the local was put in trusteeship, had stolen union funds and used SEIU resources and staff time to build their rival organization.
In the process of litigating the case, SEIU deployed four law firms at an expense of $5 million, according to SEIU-UHW communications director Steve Trossman (NUHW’s attorneys estimate the figure at closer to $10 million)—so if the award is upheld, SEIU stands to lose at least $3.5 million on the case.
“It’s absolutely worth it,” said Michelle Ringuette, SEIU’s strategic affairs director. “There’s no price tag on justice.” She called the verdict “an enormous slam-dunk victory for SEIU members, who wanted to hold [NUHW] accountable…they are exhilarated today.”
But in an interview a few hours after the verdict, Rosselli said he and NUHW are undaunted by the ruling. “Their goal was to destroy NUHW, and they failed,” he said. “They wanted us to walk away from NUHW, that’s what this is all about…This will go on for more than a year before they can try to see a dime” of NUHW money, Rosselli added, noting NUHW’s attorneys will ask Judge William Alsup to set aside the verdict, and if he doesn’t they’ll press on to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
According to Rosselli, SEIU “said I was in jail, they said that I stole $3 million, and it hasn’t resonated…This has the potential to backfire on them—what we got dinged for is fighting the trusteeship, fighting for democracy, and fighting for a voice.”
Meanwhile, on the ground, where the two unions are locked in a tough fight for members, a different verdict is playing out. In nine hospital elections over the past year, NUHW has won seven, mostly by resounding margins. The new union has won elections for more than 3,000 workers so far, while more than 100,000 have signed petitions requesting NUHW representation. The biggest organizing prize is Kaiser, where 50,000 workers will decide which union they want in an election this June. "Once we win the Kaiser election, it's going to be all over for SEIU healthcare," Roselli said.
Rosselli said there are 100 union elections pending, and SEIU has moved to block all but 30 elections at nursing homes where staff turnover has been nearly 100 percent in the past year. “The only reason they’re blocking is because they think they’re going to lose,” he said.
As the ruling came down, prominent California leaders such as United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and former California State Senate pro tem John Burton issued statements supporting NUHW. “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,” Huerta said. “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.”