Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Shirley Nelson Headshot

Democracy on Trial: My View on SEIU's Lawsuit Against Our Union

Posted: Updated:

I would like to thank the Huffington Post and the community of readers here for providing me an opportunity to share my point of view about SEIU's civil lawsuit against 26 union reformers.

They say every coin has two sides, well, so does every case in court.

To begin with, I want talk about the union I used to be an elected leader of before Andy Stern removed me and 85 other union members from office.

UHW was, by all measures, a successful union. We bargained strong, industry-leading contracts. We represented our members effectively. We organized non-union workers to join our union. We trained our stewards diligently. If you ask anyone in the labor movement who knows our history, they will tell you that we served our members well. In fact, our union was an example for the rest of the labor movement of the kind of power that a member-led union can win for its members.

All that has changed since SEIU took over UHW. While UHW was a member-led union, SEIU is an employer-friendly union.

In just one year of trusteeship, SEIU has given away the lump sum payout pension option for Kaiser employees without a vote, bargained away family health benefits at Alameda Hospital, forced Sutter employees into a substandard health plan and given away $10.5 million at the bargaining table to Daughters of Charity directly from union members' pockets. Those giveaways are the result of SEIU's employer-friendly approach to bargaining.

Directly out of our disagreement with SEIU and their takeover of our union, we have built a new, democratic union called NUHW, the National Union of Healthcare Workers. Since we took that step, however, SEIU has pursued what even Judge Alsup has called a "greedy" and "vastly overreaching" legal strategy against the union reformers who organized to prevent SEIU's takeover and went on to form NUHW.

That is the real background to SEIU's civil lawsuit.

When their lawsuit began, SEIU's lawyers were asking for $25 million in damages from the defendants. After one week in court, they have abandoned 80% of their claims. For example, over the last year SEIU has smeared the defendants with false claims of:

  • taking $3 million from UHW's strike fund
  • "Sabotaging" bargaining and grievances
  • "Leaving contracts open" at hospitals so workers could vote to choose their union
  • Misusing UHW lists and information to help Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers and Fresno homecare workers file for elections

SEIU has backed down from every one of those claims when asked to prove them in court.

It is clear that SEIU's lawyers understand, and want to hide from the jury, that the vast majority of the members of our union disagreed with Andy Stern. It's also clear that SEIU knows full well that no funds from our former union were used to build NUHW. Every witness they have put on the stand including SEIU officials Eliseo Medina, Mary Kay Henry and Leon Chow have testified to that.

As SEIU has called each key witness in the trial, the judge has been perplexed as to what SEIU thought the testimony was proving. The judge has said over and over that it is completely appropriate to try to prevent the trusteeship of a local union.

As I sit in court and hear the testimony of the current SEIU-UHW staff members, I am also deeply struck and saddened by the gross incompetence and lack of even basic familiarity with the fundamentals of representing union members they demonstrate. The staff SEIU's trustees have hired to run my former union have shown themselves to be unfamiliar with the very basics of filing grievances and bargaining contracts. They have also demonstrated a glaring lack of common sense. I say this not only as a union steward but as someone who has trained stewards and bargained contracts for over two decades.

Finally, it has also struck me the manner in which SEIU's trustees personally attack the former elected leaders of SEIU-UHW like Sal Rosselli and John Borsos. I think I can offer a valuable perspective here, since I was a member and leader of the union before either of them arrived.

I have always known Sal and John to put the members first and to conduct themselves in a deeply ethical manner. That has been our tradition; and that's why we elected them. That commitment is the founding principle of the new union we are building together, NUHW.

To read more union member voices and get facts about the trial, please visit