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Did the SEIU get its way in court?

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) won a mixed victory in its legal assault on two dozen former staff and organizers who now lead the SEIU's chief rival in California, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). The verdict came days before reports emerged that SEIU President Andy Stern--the architect of the attack--would be stepping down.
Carl Finamore, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, observed the trial. Here, he analyzes the outcome and its meaning for the labor movement.

THE 10-day federal civil trial is over, and the verdict is in. One of the nation's largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), claimed victory on April 9 after a nine-person jury awarded them a total of $737,850 in damages spread out among 16 former officers and employees of the SEIU's 150,000-member California local affiliate, United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW).

The lawsuit was a blast at the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the new union that emerged after the SEIU put the UHW in trusteeship--and now the SEIU's chief California rival.

Despite SEIU's celebration, in the end, the jury exonerated nearly half of the defendants and awarded the SEIU only 3 percent of the damages it originally sought. Sixteen former officers and staffers will be required to repay a set of UHW salaries for a brief period of 18 days.

But clearly, the SEIU strongly believes it now has legal justification for its 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, the 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, the 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.

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