Rival union vows fight after SEIU wins $1.5 million verdict


Health care employees supporting the National Union of Healthcare Workers have been in a pitched organizing battle with the Service Employees International Union to represent more than 400,000 workers statewide. Photo courtesy of NUHW.

In a mixed verdict Friday morning, a nine-member U.S. district court jury awarded $1.5 million to the Service Employees International Union in its ongoing campaign against a rival created by former SEIU staffers. The judgment is unlikely to resolve the unions’ protracted battle over members and worker voice in the labor movement.

Coming after a bitter 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 longtime president of SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West. Rosselli and 15 of his NUHW colleagues were hit with smaller penalties ranging from $30,000 to $74,000. 

SEIU originally sought $25 million in damages alleging that its former staffers — who launched NUHW a day after the international union took over the local in a trusteeship — had used SEIU resources and staff time to build an independent organization.

SEIU deployed four law firms at an expense of $5 million, said SEIU-UHW communications director Steve Trossman (though NUHW’s attorneys estimate the figure at closer to $10 million). That means that even 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. She said SEIU members “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. He noted that NUHW’s attorneys will ask federal Judge William Alsup to set aside the verdict. Otherwise they will press on to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Rosselli said his foes in 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 large margins. The new union has won elections for more than 3000 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 health care,” Rosselli said.

Rosselli said there are 100 union elections pending, and SEIU has moved to block all but 30 of them. “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 Dolores Huerta and former state Senate President pro tem John Burton issued statements supporting NUHW.

“Tens of thousands of health care 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.”

Defendants in NUHW have been volunteering for the past year to build the new union. “They gained nothing from all of this,” said Tonya Britton, a convalescent home worker in Fremont. “All they did was stick up for us.” Photo by Christopher D. Cook/SF Public Press.

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A version of this article appeared in the politics blog of the San Francisco Bay Guardian Friday.