Last week, the California state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) issued a complaint [PDF] charging the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with engaging in illegal and sometimes physically threatening behavior against dissidents who wanted to join a rival union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).
The complaint stems from 2009, after SEIU had placed into trusteeship NUHW’s predecessor, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW), a 140,000-member local, and forcibly removed UHW’s democratically elected leaders, who had resisted SEIU’s drive to agree to concessions. In response, former UHW staff and rank-and-file leaders attempted to regain their membership by holding representation elections with SEIU-represented bargaining units to decide whether they wanted to remain members of SEIU or join the new union, NUHW. (Since 2009, nearly 9,000 workers have voted to join NUHW over staying with SEIU.) In a June 2009 representation election among home healthcare workers in Fresno, SEIU won a narrow victory by a margin of 2,938 to 2,705.
But the complaint issued by PERB on August 20 alleges that in the run-up to that election SEIU physically threatened some members by “kicking in a bargaining unit member’s screen door,” “threatening to physically assault” NUHW supporters, and forcibly removing pro-NUHW signs from “the private property of a bargaining unit member.”
The complaint also alleges that SEIU “engaged in campaign misrepresentations by falsely telling bargaining unit members that, as a consequence of voting for (NUHW), they would: (1) lose their health insurance; (2) lose their place on the Kaiser Health Plan waiting list; (3) have their wages reduced to $8.00 an hour; and/or (4) lose their jobs entirely.” NUHW also claims SEIU threatened to call immigration on several undocumented workers if they voted for NUHW.
SEIU denies the charges in the complaint filed by the PERB.
“These are three-year-old, trumped-up charges that NUHW has been utterly unable to prove for one simple reason: They never happened,” says SEIU-UHW spokesman Steve Trossman. “We look forward to the hearing where we are very confident the allegations will be shown to be completely false and fabricated.”
Trossman adds that a regional attorney for the PERB, Katharine Nyman, previously investigated the charges and dismissed filing a complaint because she could not accurately identify by first and last name the SEIU organizers who were alleged to have intimidated the home healthcare workers .
However, the PERB overruled Nyman, believing the allegations had enough merit to level charges against SEIU.
“The board overruled the initial dismissal letter and has found merit to bring it forward for an informal settlement conference,” says California state PERB spokesman Les Chisholm. “They are not convicted yet, but they are being charged.”
Trossman, however, says it’s wrong for SEIU to be charged when those who claim that they were intimidated cannot identify the perpetrators by name, but only through their affiliation with SEIU.
“They could not substantiate their charges as required by law,” says Trossman. “Can you imagine someone getting convicted of a crime based on an identification that it was an ‘African-American man wearing a purple shirt’ or an ‘older Mexican woman’? [Nyman] found clearly that [NUHW] did not present a prima facie case and dismissed it.”
“The government has affirmed that SEIU engaged in an illegal campaign of intimidation and deception in Fresno three years ago,” says NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “That’s a fact. SEIU has no credible response to that basic reality, so they’re doing what they always do: denying and obfuscating. If you want to see what the government’s position is on the question, all you have to do is read the complaint from PERB. It’s all right there.”
Furthermore, NUHW argues that the standard of bringing charges in this matter should not be the same as those in a criminal case. NUHW’s aim is not to convict anyone of crimes, but rather to demonstrate that a strong enough culture of intimidation existed so as to merit the running of a new election.
These aren’t the first allegations of misconduct by SEIU in California. Last year, the NLRB ordered a new election for 45,000 Kaiser healthcare workers after it found that SEIU illegally colluded with Kaiser to punish supporters of NUHW in the run up to a representation election there in 2010. A new election date is still pending, but NUHW, which now has the financial backing of the Machinist Union (IAM), feels confident that they will be able to pull off a victory at Kaiser.
“SEIU spent millions of dollars in the 2009 homecare election in Fresno, and they were still only able to prevail by threatening violence against NUHW supporters, kicking in doors and screaming at workers, and generally creating an environment of fear of retaliation,” says NUHW Secretary-Treasurer John Borsos. “Now the government has affirmed that SEIU engaged in a campaign of intimidation and misinformation in Fresno, just like they did at Kaiser Permanente the following year. These kinds of sleazy tactics are the only way SEIU can keep workers trapped in their union, and they give a black eye to the entire labor movement.”