Allegations of ‘rampant’ sexism, ‘racist’ and ‘retaliatory’ culture came before AFSCME Council 5 leadership shakeup

By: - February 4, 2020 6:00 am

Before the abrupt leadership shakeup at one of the state’s most powerful public employee unions last summer, union leaders were accused of “rampant” sexism, as well as a “racist” and “retaliatory” culture, according to a letter obtained by Minnesota Reformer.

The letter sent to the union’s leadership in early August came from Vanessa Marian Butcher, a former Council 5 organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, known as AFSCME. Council 5 placed its then-executive director, John Westmoreland, on investigatory leave on Aug. 20; he resigned a month later, along with his No. 2, associate director Tim Henderson.

Council 5 last month appointed Julie Bleyhl as its executive director; Bleyhl had served as interim executive director. A linchpin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor coalition, the union is a major political donor that also supplies critical foot soldiers during election season. It has more than 43,000 members throughout Minnesota and represents a diverse range of occupations, including corrections officers, social workers, clerical workers and snowplow drivers. 

The union is a constant presence at the State Capitol and a close ally of DFL lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz.

The circumstances leading to the investigation and departure of Westmoreland and Henderson have until now been unknown to the public. At the time Westmoreland was placed on leave, the union board released a statement saying only that it had “learned of allegations regarding staff of AFSCME Council 5.” 

Butcher said the organization suffered from a sexist and toxic workplace culture, describing the environment as “oppressive, bullying, (and) intimidating.”

Butcher confirmed the authenticity of the letter when approached by Minnesota Reformer but declined to comment further. The letter outlines the circumstances surrounding her eight-week tenure as an organizer for the union, saying that with her termination she “became the third Black woman to be fired or not hired at AFSCME Council 5 in four months, from April to August.” 

In the letter, Butcher named two other women who she said were denied employment or fired and added that one filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Minnesota Reformer is not naming those women as we have not been able to reach them for comment. An EEOC spokeswoman said the agency does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations unless a public finding is later issued.

“I have spoken out and acted for justice on behalf of the two other Black women and I will continue to do so in whatever way I can,” said Butcher in the letter.

Westmoreland did not respond to two messages seeking comment. Reached by phone, Henderson declined to comment.

In a statement, Bleyhl said the union’s board had conducted a “thorough investigation of these allegations” led by an outside entity. “The results were presented to the board.” 

“AFSCME guarantees due process for all members and respects the privacy of all parties involved,” she said. “For this reason, we will not comment further on specific personnel matters.”

Previously, the union had also issued a statement thanking Westmoreland for his service. 

“The Council, all of its members and the employees we represent are grateful for the many years of commitment and sacrifice that John gave to this organization in service of the workers throughout the state of Minnesota,” the union said in September when Westmoreland resigned.

Reached by phone, AFSCME Council 5 president Patrick Guernsey declined to comment. 

AFSCME poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 2018 election, helping elect Walz and a DFL-majority Minnesota House.

Westmoreland ascended to the union’s top job in November 2017 after the retirement of longtime AFSCME leader Eliot Seide. 

Westmoreland had previously been Council 5’s assistant director and had also held other AFSCME positions. He became involved in the union while working as a prison guard in Stillwater.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.