Tomorrow morning at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Cal Winslow, Fund for Union Democracy, June 12, 2012

Tomorrow morning, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will hear the case of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) versus the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and 28 of NUHW's leaders in a potentially precedent-setting test of a basic trade union principle: that local union leaders are fundamentally accountable to their rank-and-file members, not to high-ranking labor officers in Washington DC.

The appeal from NUHW challenges a lower federal court ruling from the spring of 2010 which found that at the time they were in charge of United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), NUHW and its leaders had broken the law by putting their members' interests and their elected Executive Board members' decisions before the dictates of then-SEIU President Andy Stern and other SEIU officers in Washington DC.

Following the trusteeship of UHW by SEIU in January 2009, SEIU’s top officers sought to make an example of the local's former leadership for having resisted the takeover by suing for $25 million in damages. SEIU charged that the defendants had “conspired” for “personal power and profit” on “company” time to help workers leave SEIU and found a new union, NUHW.

The judge presiding over the lower court explained to jurors at one point in the hearing that the case was analogous to a dispute between Bank of America and a branch office: an internal conflict within a corporation. Judge William Alsup prohibited discussion of any of the issues pertaining to the dispute with SEIU that led up to the trusteeship, such as SEIU's exclusion of union members in contract negotiations, SEIU's active and secret collaboration with anti-union industry leaders at the expense of workers, and SEIU's insistence on forcibly removing tens of thousands of homecare workers from UHW without a membership vote.

According to their attorney, Dan Siegel, the defendants were found guilty of having worked, in the period running up to and just following the trusteeship, to stand up for the members they represented and to defend the elected leaders of the union, the democratically-determined policies of the organization, and the contract standards won over the course of decades of struggle at the worksite.

Ultimately, SEIU’s lawyers dropped virtually their entire case, presenting no evidence of alleged criminal activity, theft or violence, and reducing the damages they sought to $4 million, arguing only that the defendants had worked for two to three weeks in January 2009 in opposition to orders from the International headquarters in Washington, DC. The jury found sixteen defendants guilty of this much narrower charge, and set damages at $1.5 million, an amount far exceeded by SEIU legal expenditures.

Tomorrow a panel of judges will hear the NUHW members’ appeal, which seeks to defend fundamental issues of democratic practice in labor unions and to contest SEIU's claim that the decisions of salaried union officers pre-empt those of elected rank-and-file worker leaders in the labor movement.

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In Solidarity,

Cal Winslow, Author, Labor's Civil War in California: the NUHW Healthcare Workers' Rebellion