Commercial cleaning firm Professional Janitorial Service won $5.3 million in damages against Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Harris County earlier this month. According to the company’s law firm, AZA of Houston, this case was the first time a jury found against a union in a business disparagement or defamation case.
L.M. Sixel, an economy and workplace reporter at the Houston Chronicle, says this ruling could influence how unions campaign in the future.
“The implication I hear from different employment lawyers and from unions outside of the SEIU is that it’s going to give labor organizers some pause about what they say in the future,” she says, “and make sure that they’re being careful in the allegations that they make.”
The union got into trouble after filing complaints with the Labor Department and charges with National Labor Relations Board over unfair labor practices, like unpaid wages, overtime and other labor law violations. Sounds innocent, but Sixel says the story goes further.
“The difficulty came after the Labor Department found that there were no widespread labor violations and the Labor Board had dismissed the charges on the unfair labor practices,” Sixel says. “The union continued to tell the property owners and the tenants and the pension plan owners that the charges were still pending.”
The case began more than a decade ago, when SEIU launched its “Justice for Janitors” campaign. The union organized workers at the city’s five biggest commercial cleaners, but Professional Janitorial Service, the city’s sixth-biggest, refused to recognize the union. SEIU responded by starting an attack campaign aimed at steering contracts away from the company.
“The union, each time it would lose a building, would send out emails celebrating the fact that, through its organizing efforts, Professional Janitorial Service lost a contract,” Sixel says.
Though federal labor law allows great latitude for free speech in campaign drives for both unions and companies, Professional Janitorial Service won the case because the company could point to the business it lost because of the false allegations. Sixel says the case could affect the way other companies handle campaigns.
“It’s also going to embolden employers who feel that they’ve been maligned unfairly and unjustly and that they might find a way to the courthouse, much like Professional Janitorial Service,” Sixel says.
The ruling could have a national impact.
“I think there’s going to be an effect nationwide in the sense that it’s going to be a widely talked about case, but I don’t know what sort of practical effects it will have in other parts of the country,” Sixel says.
The union plans to appeal the case.
Post by Sunny Sone.