Houston — The president of the Texas chapter of one of the nation’s most powerful unions said in a bankruptcy hearing Thursday that despite being slapped with a multimillion-dollar defamation verdict by a Harris County jury as part of the union’s “Justice for Janitors” organizing campaign, the union would continue to organize.
“My plan is to keep moving forward with the workers with a growth plan,” Elsa Caballero of the Service Employees International Union of Texas said in the hearing.
Houston-based Professional Janitorial Service successfully sued the union, alleging that the SEIU’s intrusive and threatening organizing campaign went too far and and that the union wrongly claimed the firm had violated labor laws concerning wages and overtime.
Since the jury’s decision in September to make SEIU Texas pay $5.3 million, the total amount the union owes PJS has grown to $7.8 million, which includes interest of $2.5 million that has accumulated since the lawsuit was filed nine years ago.
The $5.3 million verdict represented the actual damages the janitorial company faced when it lost two major clients.
The labor union filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in December in a Corpus Christi federal court. The filing halted any effort, at least temporarily, by the janitorial company to take possession of the union’s assets to pay the damage award. It also allows the union to reorganize its finances and continue operating.
The union, though, must craft a payment plan, something that had not been done at the time of the hearing.
The hearing was held about six weeks after the SEIU Texas filed for bankruptcy.
PJS chief Brent Southwell questioned how much more recruiting the union would do as its leaders are trying to figure out how to pay this significant debt.
“I think they’re bluffing a little bit,” Southwell said. “Normally when they protest, they pay temporary workers. It will be interesting to see if they can get funding for that.”
Also from the hearing: Caballero admitted she used union money for her own personal expenses totalling $1,000.
She said she reimbursed the union.
Caballero declined additional comment after the hearing.
The statewide union, which represents 3,500 janitors in Houston and has its headquarters in the Bayou City, argued that the court judgment would put the group into a dire financial situation if it had to be paid.
“This filing ensures that our union will remain open for business, representing members at the bargaining table and maintaining the vital role the union plays in helping working Houstonians have a voice at work, protecting them from unfair employers, and building a better future for their families,” according to a written statement from Elsa Caballero, president of SEIU Texas.
PJS contends that because the Texas local is largely funded by the SEIU International — which has around $300 million in assets — it should be easy for the union to come up with the cash.
Indeed, PJS chief Brent Southwell told the Texas Monitor that he believed that the union filed for bankruptcy protection because Professional Janitorial Service was getting too close to making the debt an obligation of the international union, rather than just the local.
The international union dictates everything the local union does, he said, pointing to communications made public via a judge’s order.
“We have their internal emails and communications,” Southwell told the Texas Monitor. “It shows that [SEIU] International is literally approving expense reports.”
According to court records, some of those emails — some from over the past year — include:
· Documents showing a list of unpaid invoices of SEIU Texas. SEIU International asks about a plan to bring the account current. Total amount unpaid in the tens of thousands of dollars.
· Minutes from a phone conference meeting of the SEIU board, which includes reports from board directors, the budget process and budget changes, ongoing political strategies, leadership development, and SEIU officer elections.
· An email chain to confirm subsidy from SEIU International to cover SEIU TX overdraft due to payroll. The subsidy appears to be the usual monthly amount, but sent early in order to cover the overdraft. In addition, emails suggest that the SEIU International was directing money into local SEIU coffers to be used to support local candidates and causes.
The SEIU Texas local is independent from the SEIU International, Caballero said at the hearing. She also said that when it came to making decisions, the local union made the calls.
Southwell questions that.
“Basically, they are a front for SEIU International,” he said. “SEIU International is going to continue to fund them. They’re going to give them $225,000 a month, and I personally think we should get a piece of that.”
The $225,000 figure came out in the hearing.
The union is appealing the multimillion-dollar judgment, arguing that its efforts to organize the Houston janitors were protected by free speech rights and federal labor law.
It also appears PJS is not backing down.
“I’m not going away,” Southwell said. “I’ve gone this far. I might as well keep going.”