Former Teamster Official Pushed Anti-UAW Message on Social Media

Mike Elk

An example of the criticism of unions on Rhys Ledger's BYOBA website.

After the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers’ union elec­tion loss at the Volk­swa­gen plant in Chat­tanooga, Tenn., last Fri­day, many in orga­nized labor have point­ed to out­side inter­fer­ence as key to the union’s 43-vote short­fall. Of the var­i­ous groups that tried to per­suade work­ers to reject union­iza­tion, one stood out because it was run by a for­mer union orga­niz­er: a group called Be Your Own Best Advo­cate (BYO­BA).

Now, In These Times has learned that the Min­neso­ta-based con­sul­tant behind BYO­BA, Rhys Ledger, left the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters in April of 2013 after two of his boss­es were sus­pend­ed for alleged­ly embez­zling funds. Although Ledger was not charged with any wrong­do­ing, Team­sters offi­cials say the cir­cum­stances of his leav­ing under­mine his cred­i­bil­i­ty as a for­mer union orga­niz­er, which Ledger has used to lend clout to his crit­i­cisms of unions.

On its web­site, BYO­BA describes itself as a con­sul­tant to inde­pen­dent, autonomous work­groups that exer­cise com­plete self-deter­mi­na­tion in man­ag­ing their affairs. Unlike unions that cen­tral­ize pow­er and siphon dues to sus­tain large bureau­cra­cies, BYO­BA leaves the deci­sion-mak­ing and the resources with indi­vid­ual work­groups to use as they see fit.” In oth­er words, BYO­BA believes that work­ers should advo­cate for them­selves with­out the involve­ment of a for­mal union.

A week before the UAW’s Feb­ru­ary 12 – 14 union elec­tion at Volk­swa­gen Chat­tanooga, BYO­BA made its pres­ence known on social media. Pro-UAW Volk­swa­gen work­ers Byron Spencer and Wayne Cli­ett say they would fre­quent­ly encounter a BYO­BA-spon­sored Face­book post blast­ing the UAW. How ready would you be to con­tribute anoth­er $10 a month to the UAW PAC after union dues are raised to 2.5% of your pay?” the post read.

It became fea­tured as a sug­gest­ed post on my Face­book news feed,” says Spencer. When Spencer com­ment­ed on the post, he said, I had the admin for the [BYO­BA] page respond to my com­ments sev­er­al times say­ing they were offer­ing assis­tance in being orga­nized with­out a union.”

And Spencer and Cli­ett say they weren’t alone: They claim many work­ers report­ed see­ing BYOBA’s anti-UAW post on their own dashboards.

BYO­BA also made its anti-UAW case on Twit­ter. Using the pop­u­lar hash­tag #UAWVW, which was read by thou­sands of users dur­ing the peak of the cam­paign, the offi­cial BYO­BA Twit­ter account sent out Tweets crit­i­ciz­ing the UAW’s talk­ing points. On Feb­ru­ary 11 — the day before the elec­tion began — BYO­BA addressed a series of five Tweets at my Twit­ter account and that of Salon reporter Josh Eidel­son, urg­ing us to ask the union ques­tions such as, Ger­man union @solidarity w/​ @UAW guise to save their jobs from low­er cost U.S. labor? bit​.ly/​1​b​x7NZL #PlzA­sk” or If #col­lab­o­ra­tive, why @UAW rais­ing dues by 25% to build $1,000,000,000 Strike Fund? http://​on​.wsj​.com/​1​i​rAPyb #PlzA­sk.”

These com­ments clear­ly sought to raise doubts about the moti­va­tions of the Ger­man unions who stood in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the UAW, as well as about the UAW’s inten­tion to work with Volk­swa­gen in a col­lab­o­ra­tive labor-man­age­ment part­ner­ship” — both points used by the UAW to make its case for unionization.

A cred­i­ble union critic?

Asked for com­ment, Ledger told In These Times via email that his cam­paign was not anti-union. My goal was to make Volk­swa­gen work­ers aware of a new option in work­force rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” he writes. One that might bet­ter suit their needs and reflect their val­ues. I didn’t think there was any­thing pro- or anti-union about such a propo­si­tion. … BYO­BA LLC was meant to be a mar­ket-dri­ven ver­sion of Alt-Labor that would attract new mem­bers in a way that tra­di­tion­al unions could not.”

It is not uncom­mon for those oppos­ing for­mal unions to pro­pose alter­na­tive forms of work­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion that lack the bind­ing pow­er of con­tracts and third-par­ty arbi­tra­tion. There may be work­ers who believe they may be get­ting some­thing else, but they will be get­ting a com­pa­ny-dom­i­nat­ed orga­ni­za­tion whose role has been to keep the union out,” says Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Indus­tri­al and Labor Rela­tions Pro­fes­sor Kate Bron­fen­bren­ner. That was the role that com­pa­ny unions played in the 20s.”

But BYOBA’s stance may have had addi­tion­al heft in the eyes of work­ers because the orga­ni­za­tion could tout Ledger’s insid­er expe­ri­ence at unions. For the last two decades, [Ledger] has been an advo­cate for change in some of the nation’s largest unions, such as AFSCME, UNITE-HERE and the Team­sters,” says the BYO­BA web­site. A wit­ness to the best and the worst that labor unions have to offer, Ledger con­clud­ed that work­force rep­re­sen­ta­tion need­ed to be com­plete­ly recast to regain its rel­e­van­cy. Under his lead­er­ship, BYO­BA will strive to shift pow­er from out of touch union bureau­cra­cies and self-serv­ing polit­i­cal par­ties to every­day work­ing Americans.”

Com­ing from a for­mer union orga­niz­er like Ledger, com­ments crit­i­ciz­ing an orga­niz­ing cam­paign may prove very effec­tive in sway­ing work­ers who are torn between sym­pa­thy and mis­trust of an out­side union.

In fact, many labor sup­port­ers say that union orga­niz­ers-turned-busters, who claim to be in favor of work­ers’ rights and thinks unions are bad options, are some of the most com­pelling voic­es when it comes to con­vinc­ing work­ers to vote against unions. I think using for­mer union orga­niz­ers or staffers is effec­tive because they can say they’ve seen how unions oper­ate from the inside, and that makes them seem more cred­i­ble,” says Eric Fink, a pro­fes­sor at Elon School of Law spe­cial­iz­ing in labor law. You expect the boss, and the boss’s hired guns, to be anti-union. But when a for­mer union guy tells work­ers unions are no good, that comes as more a sur­prise, so it cap­tures more attention.”

Ledger does not believe that his Face­book ads had much of an effect in the plant. Frankly, the ana­lyt­ics sug­gest that the BYO­BA effect, if any, was min­i­mal. Cer­tain­ly not enough to have account­ed for the election’s out­come.” Ledger was not will­ing to share his ana­lyt­ics data with In These Times.

Ledger also claims that he received mon­ey from no one and was act­ing independently.

The Slaw­sons scandal

While Ledger claims to be pro-work­er, Team­sters offi­cials ques­tion whether he was stand­ing up for work­ers’ rights or sim­ply work­ing against unions.

He is look­ing to under­mine the whole labor move­ment and the whole labor process of allow­ing work­ers a true voice in the work­place,” said a Team­ster in a lead­er­ship posi­tion who asked to remain anony­mous because of rela­tion­ships with asso­ciates of Ledger’s. It’s nev­er been about work­ers and work­ers rights, it’s been about what Rhys Ledger can get out of it and the inter­est of Rhys Ledger.”

I’m appalled to see that Rhys has turned his back on work­ing fam­i­lies after spend­ing his entire career fight­ing on their behalf,” said Team­sters Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Bret Caldwell.

Accord­ing to Team­sters offi­cials, Ledger’s expe­ri­ence as an orga­niz­er may not have imbued him with the kind of pro-work­er sen­ti­ment he claims. One Team­ster in a lead­er­ship posi­tion, who asked to remain anony­mous, said, I would­n’t trust him as far as I can throw him. … I knew all along that he would be hired by [the] dark side.”

While with the Team­sters Local 120, Ledger was the cam­paign man­ag­er for Brad Slaw­son Jr., who pre­vi­ous­ly served as pres­i­dent of Team­ster Local 120, based in Blaine, Minn. Slawson’s father, Brad Slaw­son Sr., served as Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er. A 141-page report issued in Decem­ber of 2012 by the Inde­pen­dent Review Board (IRB), which was estab­lished in 1989 by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to inves­ti­gate cor­rup­tion with­in the orga­ni­za­tion, deter­mined that Slaw­son Sr. and Slaw­son Jr. were cor­rupt and incom­pe­tent” and that each had embez­zled tens of thou­sands of dol­lars from the union. Among oth­er charges, the IRB also accused Slaw­son Sr. of breach­ing his fidu­cia­ry duty to the union by caus­ing it to bor­row more than $3 million.

Crim­i­nal charges were nev­er pressed against either of the Slaw­sons, but the Team­sters Inter­na­tion­al put the local under trustee­ship and sus­pend­ed both father and son. Ledger, who worked close­ly with both of the Slaw­sons, was not cit­ed in the report for hav­ing knowl­edge of the embez­zle­ment schemes, but the IRB described his involve­ment in an inci­dent in which Slaw­son, Jr promised union busi­ness to a ven­dor in return for absolv­ing a per­son­al, cam­paign-relat­ed debt. Ledger left the union short­ly after the Slaw­sons were suspended.

Ledger denies have played any role in the Slaw­sons’ alleged wrong­do­ing. In regard to the Slaw­sons, I was com­plete­ly unaware of their pur­port­ed wrong­do­ing pri­or to the inves­ti­ga­tion of the Inde­pen­dent Review Board (IRB),” he says. My lack of knowl­edge of their alleged mis­deeds has been doc­u­ment­ed in two sep­a­rate, pub­licly avail­able inves­ti­ga­to­ry reports of the IRB.”

In response to a query about why Ledger left, Team­sters Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Direc­tor Bret Cald­well said in an email to In These Times, We are pro­hib­it­ed by an employ­ment sep­a­ra­tion agree­ment from com­ment­ing on his time as an employ­ee at Local 120.”

But for Min­neso­ta Team­sters Local 320 Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Direc­tor Gus Froemke, whose local occa­sion­al­ly worked with Ledgers’, it’s clear that Ledger is no longer on the side of workers.

Rhys and I both work[ed] for the Team­sters try­ing to improve the lives of its mem­ber­ship. Rhys turned his back on the Team­sters and what we stand for,” says Froemke. He turned his back on work­ing men and women for what appears to be a quick buck.” 

Since being con­tact­ed by In These Times, Ledger said he planned to sus­pend oper­a­tions in order to re-eval­u­ate” and to make clear to work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those at Volk­swa­gen, that BYO­BA LLC is no longer an option.”

Ledger seemed to indi­cate that he regret­ted his approach in Chat­tanooga. The con­cerns raised by the AFL-CIO, the UAW and oth­er labor orga­ni­za­tions would sug­gest that BYOBA’s lim­it­ed involve­ment in Chat­tanooga was mis­guid­ed and that its over­all approach is dam­ag­ing,” he wrote to In These Times. In response, and con­sis­tent with its pro-work­ers rights mis­sion, BYO­BA LLC is sus­pend­ing oper­a­tions effec­tive imme­di­ate­ly. Fur­ther, it’s offer­ing to con­fer with the AFL-CIO and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions on new and inno­v­a­tive mod­els to push the bound­aries of Alt-Labor and accom­plish much need­ed change.” 

How­ev­er, the Team­ster offi­cial who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty tells In These Times, I have no doubt that he will resur­face again [on anti-union side], but in the background.” 

UAW is a web­site spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors have no role in edi­to­r­i­al content. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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