Jury finds against union, awards $5.3 million in damages to cleaning firm

Source: L.M. Sixel, Houston Chronicle, September 6, 2016

A Harris County jury on Tuesday awarded a Houston commercial cleaning firm $5.3 million in damages, finding that a labor union’s aggressive organizing campaign went too far when it maligned the reputation of the company. It opens the door for more employers to sue unions over hardball tactics often used in membership drives and contract disputes. The jury, by a 10-2 vote, found for Professional Janitorial Service in a suit the company brought nine years ago against the Service Employees International Union, which targeted the company as part of its “Justice for Janitors” organizing campaign and wrongly claimed Professional Janitorial Service had violated wage, overtime and other labor laws. The case was the first time that a jury has found against a union in a business defamation or disparagement case, according to a search of legal records by the company’s law firm, AZA of Houston. … The union said it would appeal the verdict. In a statement, the SEIU called the outcome an assault on free speech rights and said the trial was “riddled with procedural errors and blatant appeals to the prejudices of the jury.” The union said the company failed to prove the union’s statements were “false, defamatory, malicious” or that it suffered economic damages. … The case stretches back more than a decade, when SEIU launched its “Justice for Janitors” campaign in Houston, organizing workers at the city’s five biggest commercial cleaners and negotiating contracts with them. Professional Janitorial Service, the sixth largest, refused to recognize the union without first giving workers a chance to vote in a government-supervised election. SEIU went on the attack, accusing the company of forcing employees to work off the clock and firing them for union activities and using its connections with politicians and pension funds, which invest in commercial real estate, to steer cleaning contracts away from Professional Janitorial Service, according to court documents. …