CWA convention to feature three-way presidential race
CWA contenders: Sara Steffens, Claude Cummings, and Ed Mooney. | Photos via CWA

ST. LOUIS—A three-way presidential race, its first contested election in decades, highlights the Communications Workers of America convention in St. Louis. And it offers contrasts between Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens—who’s running to succeed her ticket-mate, retiring President Chris Shelton—and two male challengers, Ed Mooney and Claude Cummings.

Shelton is stepping down after a total CWA career of 50 years, the last eight as president, due to “serious health concerns” in his family. He’s strongly endorsed Steffens as his “strong partner.”

“In every decision, in every challenge this union and I had to face, Sara has been by my side. In every collective bargaining situation, every strike decision, and every time I had to testify before Congress, Sara Steffens was right there with me, every step of the way.

“Together, we have faced the daily push and pull of running our great union and our fight to dismantle racism and all forms of prejudice throughout CWA…She’s earned the job.”

The contest, to occur on July 10, the conclave’s formal opening day, will feature a number of firsts for the 1,000-plus delegates to the activist union to ponder.

If Steffens wins, she’d be CWA’s first female president and only its second non-telecom one.

Steffens started her CWA career as a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in California but quickly became involved in successfully organizing that paper and others in the San Francisco Bay area for the News Guild-CWA’s Bay Area local.

She’s been heavily involved in organizing new members, especially in non-telecom sectors. They’re now the majority of CWA. One unknown is two lingering resentments: Male chauvinism and resentment that she’s not a telecom worker.

CWA’s non-telecom workers are now a majority in the union, though the telecom workers are still the largest single segment. Others include News Guild members—and that union has grown by more than 15% in the last three years—Flight Attendants, university grad student workers, call center workers, Broadcast Employees and Technicians, former Electrical Workers (IUE), hospital workers, digital employees, and large groups of state employees, especially in New Jersey and Texas.

“We have to be willing and able to strike, where it makes sense,” Steffens told CWA Bay Area locals in April while campaigning for the top spot, according to an essay by supporter Steve Early. “That’s the moment we’re in.” She promised CWA would stay a “militant, democratic, and progressive union,” symbolized by its Democratic presidential endorsement, twice, of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., over “establishment” candidates Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Steffens also argues, Early said, that growing the union means more internal organizing, recruiting more shop stewards, and involving them in organizing drives.

Cummings, who heads the union’s District 6, based in Austin, Texas, would be CWA’s first African-American president and its first from the South. Mooney and Cummings both come out of the telecom workers, who were CWA’s majority for decades.

Cummings made a pitch for movement-building with like-minded organizations, especially to counter the losses in telecom CWA suffered due to the breakup of AT&T, consolidation of the succeeding “Baby Bells” into regional behemoths of their own, plus what’s left of AT&T as a separate firm, telecom mechanization and modernization—such as fiber optic cables, which require fewer installers—and company outsourcing.

“In CWA, we need to partner with the NAACP, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, and Greenpeace, so we can have a greater impact in the political arena and to gain support for organizing and bargaining,” Cummings told Early. At 71 and with the longest telecom experience and negotiating responsibility, Cummings declares himself the “best-qualified candidate to deal with AT&T on stopping contracting out and bringing jobs back from overseas.”

Mooney, more than Cummings, is believed to be the candidate of the telecom workers, though his platform declares that if elected, he’d be president of everyone. Shelton backs Steffens strongly, but his New York City Local 1101 of telecom workers backs Mooney, for example. Cummings headed a large telecom local in Houston.

“I have heard over and over that we need to take a more aggressive stance at the bargaining table. I couldn’t agree more,” Mooney declares.

Mooney pledged “to put the full power of this union behind bargaining to secure contracts that protect our work today, bring the work of the future into the bargaining unit tomorrow, and deliver the kind of pay, benefits, and dignity every CWA member deserves.” That means, Mooney added, hiring more staff to do so.

Electorally, Mooney said the union must continue to focus on electing allies to Congress. CWA has already endorsed the Democratic Biden-Harris ticket for re-election to the White House. “Our goal in political action will always be simple: To pass laws that make it easier for our union to succeed and our members to thrive,” he says.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.