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/1bx7NZL #PlzAsk” or “If #collaborative, why @UAW raising dues by 25% to build $1,000,000,000 Strike Fund? http://on.wsj.com/1irAPyb #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.”
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