Sunday, May 10, 2009

At the SEIU: Harassing dissidents’ lawyers, China Style

On his trips to China, Andy Stern may have learned how to hone his union managerial skills. The authoritarian rulers of China go beyond simply punishing critics; they go after the victims' lawyers to teach other lawyers the painful consequences of helping dissidents. Stern can pay well to hire an army of his own lawyers to harass lawyers who represent his opponents.

When the 150,000-member SEIU Local United Healthcare Workers-West, under its president, Sal Rosselli, was a normally self governing local and it dared to criticize Andy Stern's policies, it was compelled to retain lawyers to try to ward off Stern's moves to destroy its autonomy. Now that Stern has taken over the local, ousted all its officers, and seized its treasury, his appointed trustees are not content with mere total authoritarian control. They are moving against the lawyers who represented UHW in its days of independence.

Rosselli and the former officers of UHW have resigned from the SEIU and set up a new union, the National United Healthcare Workers; they are challenging the SEIU for representation of those 150,000 healthcare workers in California. The dispute could be resolved by collective bargaining elections sponsored by the NLRB for private employees and public employee relations boards for local government workers. No such elections will be fair and square democratic contests. The SEIU begins the campaign with an enormous treasury, swollen by the seized assets of UHW, and with a big staff. Rosselli's NUHW enters with an empty coffer and must painfully piece together campaign money and staff salaries. But at least elections will give workers a chance to decide.

Now comes SEIU's double legal assault: one set of lawyers is retained to confront Rosselli and a host of former UHW representatives on charges like "stealing" SEIU "property" e.g., mailing lists. Another set of lawyers is hired to confront the lawyers who represented the old autonomous UHW. The effect of these suits, and apparently the intention, is to make it extraordinarily difficult for the dissident NUHW to campaign for support among healthcare workers. They can be so tied up in defending themselves in court that they will have few of their meager resources left for election contests. In contrast, with guaranteed dues and agency shop fees from a million and a half workers, the SEIU remains loaded with cash.

Harassing legal action, like that against Rosselli and his union supporters, is nothing new and does not seem to require special comment. As part of the "normal" repression of union dissidents, it brings no credit to Stern for imaginative inventiveness. But the action against Rosselli's lawyers does seem to introduce a kind of China refinement.

In their guise as the new representatives of UHW, and their reputed replacement as the former legal clients of one of UHW's former law firms, Stern's trustee- attorneys are bombarding the firm with an extensive list of burdensome demands. Their suit in California state court, against the firm of Siegel and Lewitter and 100 unnamed "Does," demands they produce every scrap of paper and electronic blip ("correspondence, files, memoranda, billing records, and other documents and materials") that are in any way related to its services for the autonomous UHW and its former officers, now removed.

The suit of the Stern-appointed trustee goes far beyond a mere fishing expedition for data. Its effect, if successful, would make it difficult for the Rosselli team and its National Union of Healthcare Workers to mount an effective legal defense. By taking over UHW-W and its treasury, the trustee has already deprived Stern's critics of money, forcing them to seek voluntary donations from supporters. The suit would compound that disability by depriving them of experienced legal representation. The trustee-attorneys ask the court for "injunctive relief enjoining and restraining Defendants, and all of their principals, associates, agents, servants, employees and all persons acting in concert with them, and each of them, from providing any form of legal services or representation to the Former Officers with respect to any matters relating directly or indirectly to Defendants' former representation of UHW-W, and from disclosing to any subsequent counsel for Former Officers any of the confidential information of UHW-W which Defendants obtained in the course of their representation." They want more than data and disqualification. They want money: "damages," costs, legal fees.

The Siegel firm insists that it must resist these sweeping demands because it must respect the confidential limits of its attorney-client relationship. In rejecting any attorney-client assertion, the trustee-attorneys claim that they, as UHW's current legal representative, have the right to any material produced for it. But equating the status of a democratically elected leadership with an officialdom imposed arbitrarily is a misleading stretch. The Siegel firm, in representing UHW-W through its democratically elected officers, was obligated to protect the rights of the members by defending their democratically elected officers. The trustee-attorney represents the Stern administration which appointed it. A more apt comparison would be between the democratically elected leaders of a small nation and a replacement Quisling officialdom imposed by a tyrannical oppressive invader.

The trustee-attorney may have certain extensive technical legal rights over the trusteed UHW. In contrast, the Siegel firm asserts a legal responsibility to protect the interests of its clients. In the context of current events, that claim is buttressed by the moral standards of fair play, decency, and democracy.

Andy Stern began with the proclaimed goal of helping to liberate workers of the world from oppression. Along the way, he has taken a devious detour. He is busy liberating an army of high-paid lawyers to torment union dissidents and their attorneys.

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