Jurors in San Francisco on Friday awarded the Service Employees International Union a small fraction of the damages sought in a civil lawsuit against former officials of the 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) local union and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) that they formed last year.
SEIU claimed that former UHW president, now head of NUHW, Sal Rosselli and 27 others had misused UHW resources in forming the new union, during a time before and after SEIU put UHW under a trusteeship in January 2009. The international union acted after Rosselli refused an order that the big healthcare local cede roughly 65,000 of its home-care worker members to another SEIU local without the members voting, as Rosselli requested.
The jury’s decision did little to alter the ongoing battle between SEIU and NUHW for the support of California’s largest bloc of unionized health care workers. Lawyers for the two sides did not even agree on the size of the jury award. SEIU, which had initially asked for $25 million in damages, says the jury awarded more than $1.5 in damages. NUHW says the total is only $737,850, most of it assessed against NUHW.
Originally SEIU named 28 defendants, but 2 were dropped before trial. No judgment was made against 12 defendants, and the remainder were mainly ordered to reimburse UHW for wages and “diversion of resources” in the weeks immediately prior to the trusteeship.
NUHW defendants plan to ask the judge to set aside the award and, if he does not, to appeal the decision.
They also anticipate bringing their own legal actions against SEIU in coming weeks.
SEIU claimed the jury found Rosselli and others “guilty” and that the evidence presented in the trial showed that the defendants engaged in a long conspiracy to use UHW resources to launch a new union, stole and destroyed documents and lists, used violence and intimidation, deliberately canceled contract extension to aid their decertification plans, and in other ways violated their fiduciary duties as union officers.
But the jury did not indicate what claims by the plaintiffs they upheld in awarding damages. As UHW and SEIU attorney Glenn Rothner said, the jury took in all the evidence, but there were no special interrogatories presented to them. “There is no evidence of what they relied on,” he said. Likewise NUHW vice-president John Borsos said, “It’s really fuzzy what the jury ruled.”
Indeed, NUHW argues that many of SEIU’s claims were either “abandoned by SEIU or rejected by the court,” including claims that the former UHW officials left contracts open, sabotaged union files, moved money to an outside account for personal use, and stole $3 million from the union’s strike fund. SEIU presented a computer memo from defendant Barbara Lewis as evidence of a conspiracy to make the local “ungovernable” after trusteeship, but NUHW countered that there was no evidence her memo was ever sent or seen by other defendants.
NUHW vice-president John Borsos said that the trial was a victory of sorts for NUHW despite the judgment, since the judge repeatedly affirmed in the trial and instructions to the jurors that UHW members and officers had the right to resist the trusteeship and to form a new union.
“They put democracy on trial,” he said, “and what rights workers had to resist trusteeship and create a new organization. All that was confirmed.” By contrast, he said, SEIU attorneys responded to a question from the judge by arguing that officers would not have the right to argue for disaffiliation of a local even if the international union were thoroughly corrupt.
Before the trial, SEIU offered to drop the lawsuit if NUHW disbanded, Borsos said. He argued that the suit was intended to chill opposition in the union. “They made it clear that they were doing everything they did to trample democracy in SEIU and to throw up any roadblocks they could to NUHW competing with SEIU,” he said.
SEIU insists that the case – which NUHW says cost the union over $10 million — was about local officers’ misuse of union funds and power, and the judgment vindicates their charges. “Today we won,” said Erica Boddie, a Kaiser hospital steward who served as a spokesperson for SEIU and UHW. “It’s not so much about the money. It’s a moral victory.”
But with each side finding moral victories in an ambiguous decision, the real victory is likely to be decided in the elections coming up to decide between UHW and NUHW in health care workplaces throughout California.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.