In an unexpected twist, a former Labor secretary tapped to resolve a dispute between two high-profile labor leaders essentially rendered a split decision Thursday.
At issue was whether the officers of United Healthcare Workers-West, based in Oakland, broke union rules when they set up a tax-exempt fund for patient education, which the Service Employees International Union said was a secret war chest in a fight against its parent union.
SEIU officials made the allegations last year as the two groups battled over long-term care workers. SEIU wants to create a single local in each state to represent home care workers. Its board ordered the merger in California this month.
Nearly half of UHW's 150,000 members work as aides in the homes of sick and disabled patients, and it has vocally opposed losing them to a new local. But it denied that the nonprofit it set up in 2007 was for anything other than its stated purpose: healthcare education.
In a report released Thursday, Ray Marshall, secretary of Labor from 1977 to 1981, said he found UHW guilty of financial mismanagement, but he did not recommend trusteeship on those grounds.
Instead, he recommended that UHW be put in trusteeship only if it fails to accept the SEIU's merger decision, cooperate with its implementation and allow a monitor to oversee UHW's expenditures, among other provisions.
Marshall said that internal debate is healthy, but at some point local unions have to bend to democratic decisions made by their parent organizations and work toward common goals. He recommended that UHW's leadership be ousted if it does not agree within five days to stop fighting the merger, which he said was the underlying issue.
"The UHW-SEIU conflict is hurting both organizations at a critical time in the development of the labor movement and progressive policies in the country," Marshall wrote in his 105-page report.
The SEIU executive board on Thursday unanimously approved his recommendations and authorized trusteeship if his conditions are not met.
"This is very clearly giving them the opportunity to work with us on a program to change this country," said Michelle Ringuette, a spokeswoman for the SEIU in Washington. She categorized the conditions as a show of "mercy."
But UHW officials, who have long said the trusteeship hearing was a political witch hunt, said they were vindicated by Marshall's findings. They said it was the first time in the SEIU's 90-year history that a trusteeship hearing called by the union's president didn't end in a recommendation for a trusteeship.
However, they said Marshall had "grossly exceeded his authority" in the conditions he recommended.
"The trusteeship hearing was about the finances of a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization -- not a forced merger," UHW officials said in a written statement. "This decision is not based on law, or even on the issue that was before the hearing officer, but rather is a political decision."
UHW did not say whether it would accept the conditions. It said recently that its members have asked to disaffiliate with SEIU.
Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues, agreed that it is "highly unusual" for a hearing officer to recommend against trusteeship. He said that he thought Marshall was trying to close the chasm that has grown between UHW president Sal Rosselli and SEIU president Andy Stern and has become ammunition for anti-union forces at a time when labor interests are pushing for a broad revamping of the country's labor laws.
"I think he's trying to . . . say: 'Look, there are good people on both sides of this, but it's causing great damage to the labor movement more generally,' " Shaiken said.