By Don McIntosh
Jesse Miller’s day job is helping Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) patients schedule and keep appointments. He’s also a steward, executive board member, and social media team volunteer for his union, AFSCME Local 328. On Local 328’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, he posts bargaining updates, and responds to questions and comments from fellow members.
In April, he noticed odd posts from someone claiming to be a member, but didn’t think a lot about it.
Local 328 is one of Oregon’s largest union locals, representing nearly 7,000 OHSU employees. Most of its diverse membership is supportive of the union, but criticism of the union isn’t unheard of, and Miller was used to responding to critics respectfully and forthrightly.
“If they were a member, and had questions, I wanted to give them good-faith honest answers,” he said.
But by late July, Miller says it became clear that the union had a troll problem.
In Internet parlance, a troll is a person who shows up to the social media water cooler specifically to cause turmoil, insulting or baiting others into an emotional response. Keyboard cowards, they nearly always use fake names and try to stay anonymous.
Local 328’s Twitter account started getting interactions from a pair of Twitter accounts under the names “Aanus McFadden” and “Roy Vragina.”
Miller says the accounts spread misinformation and tried to bait others, for example asking why the union wouldn’t agree to a management proposal to give bigger raises to lower-paid workers. [Because it was intended to create division in the union, Miller says.]
On the bus to his home in the St. Johns neighborhood, Miller’s phone buzzed with Twitter notifications. “Aanus” was complaining that his questions weren’t being answered immediately.
“This is pretty classic troll behavior,” Miller says. “And looking at the account, the name is ludicrous.”
On the trail of a troll
Miller joked to members of the union bargaining team about it, and someone said he should look more closely at the account. The troll hadn’t hidden his identity very carefully. The Aanus McFadden Twitter account had only one follower, Roy Vragina, and Vragina had only one follower as well: an account named “Frengle” with a picture of … Patrick Frengle, an OHSU financial analyst and member of the management bargaining team. The McFadden and Vragina accounts were both created in October 2012. And McFadden, Vragina and Frengle followed identical accounts, including political prognosticator Nate Silver and comic Sarah Silverman.
Miller and other Local 328 leaders discussed with their union staff reps what to do about it. They decided to watch and wait, and document the behavior with screenshots.
“We didn’t want to say something if there was any chance we were wrong, because the stakes were high in this,” Miller recalls. Miller wrote up an article about what he’d found, but didn’t publish it, yet.
Then the trolling escalated. The accounts started posting anti-union memes, hashtags like #AFSCMEHypocrisy, and spreadsheets with phony numbers trying to make the case that union dues were regressive. “Vragina” began trolling the union’s Facebook account as well. After Vragina criticized union bargaining team member Jennifer Barker by name, the union social media team banned him from the Facebook page. Then the McFadden and Vragina accounts changed their Twitter display names to “Progress Values 1” and “Luke Warm” and followed a bunch of Local 328 members. [On Twitter, accounts have both a permanent user name, or handle — which comes after the @ sign — and a display name, which they can change.]
Miller and the others decided it was time to go public with what they’d found. But first, they’d call Dan Forbes, OHSU’s vice president of human resources — to give him a courtesy heads up, but also because they had suspicions about another fake account with the name Peter Pumpkin Eater.
Since April, Peter Pumpkin Eater had pretended to be a Local 328 member at OHSU’s West Campus (and complained the union had been ignoring West Campus). Recently “Peter” had started interacting with the Frengle-linked accounts, and held what seemed like a coordinated back-and-forth discussion about how Local 328’s dues are regressive and harmful to lower-wage workers. Peter Pumpkin Eater chose for his avatar a picture of iconic socialist union leader Eugene Debs, who ran for president in 1918 from a prison cell for opposing World War I.
[pullquote]The irony of all this was none of the trolling was well done. None of it was effective. None of it reached many people.” —Jesse Miller[/pullquote] Miller and members of the union bargaining team studied the account closely to see if it had links to any other member of management bargaining team. One of the account’s few early activities had been entering a contest for concert tickets for an obscure band — a band that HR director Dan Forbes happened to like. Forbes’ middle name is Peter. Could one of OHSU’s top executives be posing as a union member to troll the union he was sitting across from at the bargaining table?
When an Oregon AFSCME staff person called Forbes to tell him about the trolling, Forbes was surprisingly silent. He didn’t ask which member of the bargaining team they had fingered as the culprit. And while the conversation was under way or immediately after, the Peter Pumpkin Eater account was deleted.
We’re deeply disappointed to learn about this inappropriate conduct on social media. We are sorry. We can confirm that this individual has been removed from our bargaining team, effective immediately, and is prohibited from participating in any future negotiations.
— OHSU News (@OHSUNews) August 6, 2019
The union then shared what it knew about Peter Pumpkin Eater with another OHSU executive. The next day, OHSU announced Forbes’ resignation, adding that he won’t take part in bargaining, but will continue other duties until November.
If any union member had done what Frengle and Forbes did, they’d be walked out by security and terminated, Miller says.
“The irony of all this was none of the trolling was well done,” Miller says. “None of it was effective. None of it reached many people.”
It may also have violated Oregon law.
Tasteless … and lawless, too
Oregon’s public employee collective bargaining law, like the federal labor law that covers private sector workers, requires unionized employers to bargain in good faith. That doesn’t mean employers like OHSU have to agree with union proposals, but it does mean they have to deal honestly and respectfully with the union.
Showing up at a union meeting in disguise —pretending to be a member, and then abusing union volunteers, spreading disinformation, and trying to cause dissension — is not good faith. That’s what Frengle and Forbes did, only instead of a union meeting it was union social media.
An attorney for Oregon AFSCME emailed OHSU management asking that it not destroy any evidence, and on Aug.
9 8, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against OHSU with the Oregon Employment Relations Board. The union could end up withdrawing the charge as a peace offering if members ratify a new contract. [UPDATE: While dropping unfair labor practice charges is common in contract settlements, Local 328 executive board officer and bargaining team member Jennifer Barker said Aug. 17 via email that it’s not being considered in this case.]
At a marathon 21-hour negotiation session Aug. 13, OHSU dropped proposals that had been angering members for months, including a health insurance take-back, a two-tier arrangement that would have treated new hires differently, and an unpopular paid time off (PTO) policy that would have incentivized members to work while sick in order to save vacation days. With those obstacles out of the way, the two sides reached tentative agreement on a new three-year contract that will raise wages 9.25% and make other improvements. Members will vote on the agreement in early September.