The 10-day federal civil trial is over, the verdict is in. The nation’s largest union, SEIU, claimed victory on March 9 after a nine-person jury awarded them a total of $737,850 in damages spread out among 16 former officers and employees of their 150,000-member California local affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) and against their UHW rebel offshoot and chief California rival, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
Despite SEIU’s celebration, in the end, the jury exonerated nearly half the defendants and awarded SEIU only 3 percent of the damages originally sought, requiring 16 former officers and staffers to repay a set of UHW salaries for a brief period of 18 days.
But, clearly, SEIU strongly believes it now has legal justification for their high-pitched cacophony aimed at these former UHW veteran leaders amid accusations that they are completely unethical and unfit to run a union, particularly one challenging SEIU.
However, despite all the hyped accusations of a conspiracy beginning in 2007 to steal money and files, to obstruct the functioning of UHW and to secretly plot to build a new union, SEIU’s actual damage claims were strictly limited to just several weeks in January 2009.
This two-and-half week period of time stretched from January 9, when SEIU’s International Executive Board (IEB) voted to forcibly transfer 65,000 UHW members to another local union, to January 27, when SEIU finally imposed trusteeship on UHW, suspending its constitution and firing all its officers and staff.
During that time, defendants argue, UHW leaders had every right to insist these 65,000 workers be given the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to remain in UHW or be placed into another local. In fact, during this same 18-day period in question, they attempted to resolve the dispute and certainly did nothing illegal.
Defendants pointed to a January 26, 2009, letter to SEIU President Andy Stern, approved unanimously by the UHW executive board, pledging full cooperation if these 65,000 workers were extended the right to vote on the matter. Stern rejected their proposal and imposed trusteeship the next day.
It is worth noting that no damages were sought for stealing, sabotage, violence, obstruction or lying. SEIU’s personal accusations against NUHW leaders is their main line of attack outside the courtroom, but never once were they raised for the jury to consider, although their attorneys did perform a skillful job of introducing a steady stream of calculated innuendo.
It is difficult to gauge the effect this had on the jury despite US Federal District Court Judge William Alsup’s instructions directly affirming,”there is no claim in this case against any defendants for assault, battery, theft, trespass or intimidation.”
“The difficult challenge for the jury,” defense attorney Dan Siegel accurately predicted to me while the jury was still deliberating, “is to differentiate the variety of confusing allegations over an extended period of time from the extremely narrow list of actual damage claims, limited to only one month.
“Plaintiff attorneys accuse defendants of improperly resisting the transfer of 65,000 members from their local, unlawfully opposing trusteeship and plotting to build NUHW while still working for UHW. And they hope the jury leaps to the conclusion that one month’s damages should be awarded because of the cumulative record of this alleged misconduct. But if their case was so strong over the whole period of time UHW was in conflict with the international union, why were claims only made for that one month?”
Power at the Top or Democracy at the Bottom
Through it all, NUHW remains defiant and intends to appeal the jury’s verdict.
Of particular concern in the appeal, is Judge Alsup’s problematic jury instructions that defendants could not “obstruct or frustrate the ability of UHW or SEIU to carry out the [trusteeship] decision and did not induce others” to do the same after the January 9, 2009, SEIU IEB vote to transfer 65,000 UHW long-term health care workers out of the local.
These jury instructions, defendants feel, unfairly characterized the legitimate democratic rights of local union members and their elected leadership as being illegal. In effect, the jury instructions biased the jury in favor of SEIU’s central premise that all opposition to the international should have ceased after the January 9 IEB decision. Every dollar assessed in damages springs from defendants’ actions from this date.
SEIU’s constitution does indeed share the same language as all union constitutions, whereby certain decisions of the international union take precedence over local units. But this does not mean a local union cannot democratically decide to use its own resources to challenge and oppose decisions right up to the moment they are implemented.
Opposing decisions, defendants argue, is quite different from obstructing the actual trusteeship itself, which in this case, did not occur until January 27, 2009. At that time, the defendants were removed from office and fired, therefore, arguably preventing them from interfering in the actual application of the trusteeship.
This was a very plausible argument. Opposing certain views is widely understood among those who value democratic rights to be quite different than obstructing certain actions. This is a fundamental distinction that protects basic free speech rights in this country.
That is, until this court suit set a precedent, a dangerous precedent, I believe, that requires local unions cease all opposition once an IEB or any higher body makes a policy decision, even before it is implemented.
This is a blow to dissident voices who seek to influence national leaders to reconsider policy. To this day, a debate of the real issues has been obfuscated by Andy Stern, who still has not yet acted, ironically, on separating the 65,000 long-term health workers from UHW.
In his determined pursuit to squelch an internal rebellion, Stern ruthlessly tread on the personal reputations of honorable trade unionists. More important, he trampled on the rights and interests of his own members, poisoning the political atmosphere and setting dangerous legal precedents that, left unchallenged, can be used against rebel workers both inside SEIU and in other unions as well.
Carl Finamore was present for most of the trial.