In Contested CWA Election: Can a Worker Fired for Organizing Become National Union President?

Photograph Source: Dcpeopleandeventsof2017 – CC BY-SA 4.0

When Sara Steffens was a young reporter from Oakland, she helped her co-workers at the Contra Costa Times form a new Newspaper Guild bargaining unit. Like some workers involved in organizing today at Apple, Amazon, or Starbucks, she paid a personal price for that. Two weeks after a successful unionization vote at the paper, Steffens was fired in retaliation for her labor activism.

Nevertheless, in June, 2009, the Bay Area News Group, then owned by media mogul Dean Singleton, signed a first contract covering Guild members at the Times. Across the table from management, hammering out that agreement, was the “union troublemaker” they tried to get rid of. As a Guild negotiator, Steffens was able to boost minimum salaries, guarantee severance pay, and make sure that future dismissals without just cause could be overturned by a neutral arbitrator.

Steffens’ organizing and first contract experience put her on a new career path from 14-years in journalism to full-time employment with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), an AFL-CIO union that includes the NewsGuild. Her subsequent record as a field rep throughout California and then CWA Secretary-Treasurer in Washington, D.C. has positioned her to become the union’s first female national president—if she can beat two other contenders for that position.

Steffens was back in the Bay Area recently, drumming up support among CWA locals that will be participating in a July 10-12 convention in St Louis. There, an estimated 1,000 elected delegates, representing about 360,000 workers, will choose between her and two fellow CWA executive board members. This will be the union’s first contested presidential election since the 1950s. And advocates for union revitalization, inside and outside CWA, are watching the race closely, given the positive results of recent internal elections in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Teamsters, where reformers won top leadership positions.

Growing The Union

Leaders of one of CWA’s largest locals, the 9,500- member, UC-based University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) has already voted to endorse Steffens. Its new president Dan Russell, an East Bay DSA member and supporter of causes like Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), lauds her commitment to “growing the union,” by providing more resources for external and internal organizing.

Speaking in Oakland on April 23, Steffens confessed that she had “spent a lot of years feeling like the labor movement was on its last legs, with so much concession bargaining in so many unions. I felt like we would always be the underdog, but that’s not what it feels like now.”

The recent revival of labor militancy has proven, she said, that we “have to be willing and able to strike, where it makes sense. That’s the moment we’re in.” Under her leadership, Steffens promised that CWA would continue to be a “militant, democratic, and progressive union.” But, she argues, that will require internal organizing efforts like recruiting more shop stewards (whose tasks might include signing up 50,000 workers represented by CWA but not paying dues in “open shop” units in the private or public sector).

Steffens’ personal history and campaign focus on building “worker power” from below distinguishes her, to varying degrees, from her rivals for the presidency. CWA regional leaders Claude Cummings, Jr. and Ed Mooney both joined the union in more traditional fashion when they were hired, as telephone technicians, into established bargaining units. Cummings is a 50-year member from Texas who hopes to become CWA’s first African-American president, just as he was path-breaking local union leader in Houston.(All CWA presidents, since its founding have been white and male, and only one of the five—Labor for Bernie leader and now Our Revolution chair Larry Cohen–came from outside the telecom industry.)

Promoting Diversity?

At age 71, Cummings is not the voice of a new generation in labor, but, as he told me in a recent phone interview, he has never lost a union election in the past 36 years. “I will put my work experience, wisdom, and what I’ve accomplished against their youth,” he said, referring to Steffens and Mooney, who are both in their early 50s. Cummings has headed CWA’s Civil Rights Department and been personally active, for many years, in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. He’s also serves on the NAACP’s national board of directors. Within CWA, he is particularly proud of his record promoting “women, people of color and youth,” thus contributing to leadership diversity.

“I’m a strong proponent of movement building,” he explained. “In CWA, we need to partner with the NAACP, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, and Greenpeace, so we can have greater impact in the political arena and to gain support for organizing and bargaining.” As a regional official with major responsibility for relations with CWA’s largest telecom employer, he believes that he’s the “best qualified candidate to deal with AT&T on stopping contracting out and bringing jobs back from overseas.”

Cummings own district lost 12% of its membership between 2020 and last year, much of it due to corporate down-sizing. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding and start organizing,” he says. “The companies have got to stop using us in the legislative and regulatory arenas and then we get nothing in return.”

Verizon Local Differences

On his campaign website, CWA Vice-President Ed Mooney highlights his role in recent work stoppages at Verizon (or its predecessors), a company which has been struck six time, since 1986, by CWA and IBEW members. To the background strains of Irish folk music, Mooney supporters have recorded and posted video testimonials, like one from Jim Gardler, his successor as president of Local 13000 in Pennsylvania.  According to Gardler, “Ed is always going to stand up and fight for what he believes is right.” (Mooney himself could not be reached for a requested interview, before this story was posted.)

Outside his own mid-Atlantic district, Mooney is drawing support from other telecom technician units like Local 1101 in NYC, the home local of CWA President Chris Shelton. Shelton led the union’s 2016 strike against Verizon (VZ), an anti-concession struggle much applauded on the left. In February, he announced his retirement and strongly endorsed Steffens as his partner, for the last eight years, in “the daily push and pull of running our great Union and our fight to dismantle racism and all forms of prejudice throughout CWA.”

One telecom local president following Shelton’s lead is Verizon strike veteran Don Trementozzi. His Local 1400 in New England represents customer service and sales reps in call centers or retail stores, media and manufacturing workers, soft-ware developers and data center staff, and local government employees. He also provided an organizational home for the 1,400-member Alphabet Workers Union, a self-organized group at Google, which is now a directly affiliated CWA local, based in California.

Trementozzi is very critical of Mooney’s resistance to an agreement reached last year to extend Covid-related “remote work” opportunities for customer service reps and other Verizon workers. “The number one issue for many members is ‘work at home’—or having hybrid schedules,” Trementozzi says. “How do you organize new workers with a union president who is dead set against that?’

 Changing Union Demographics 

What gives Steffens a fighting chance is the changing demographics of CWA—and her better grasp of the need to maintain more flexible workplace arrangements, when favored by the rank-and-file in the telecom and tech industry, the public sector, airlines and media firms.

When I assisted a nationwide walkout at AT&T forty years ago this summer, CWA represented 500,000 telephone workers. They were joined by 200,000 members of two other unions bargaining with the same big regulated monopoly. Today–due to deregulation, corporate restructuring, technological change, union busting, and overseas out-sourcing–CWA’s total membership in the industry is down to 109,000. More workers are employed in call centers or retail stores, not just remaining central office or “outside plant” jobs at AT&T, VZ, Frontier, Century/Link/Qwest, or other phone companies.

To offset declining “union density” in telecom, CWA pursued aggressive external organizing in the private and public sector, plus union amalgamation. It won bargaining rights for government employees, healthcare and campus workers, and airline industry passenger service staff, who now number nearly 150,000. CWA has also merged with smaller AFL-CIO unions, like the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), the NewsGuild and Typographical Union, and the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians (NABET). Their combined membership totals more than 115,000, also out-numbering phone workers.

The best-known leader of one smaller CWA “sector” is AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, a past speaker at national meetings of DSA, Labor Notes, and TDU. A much-touted progressive contender for national AFL-CIO president and, more recently, U.S. Secretary of Labor, Nelson didn’t get elected or nominated to either position. Now, given an opportunity to lift up CWA’s first female or first African-American president, she is reportedly leaning towards Mooney, the most politically conservative candidate in the race, according to CWA insiders. (Despite repeated email and phone queries, both Nelson and AFA Communications Director Taylor Garland declined to comment on Nelson’s preferred candidate or AFA’s organizational choice.)

A NewsGuild Shake-Up

All the candidates trying to succeed Shelton are thus still scrambling to woo local officers and sectoral leaders representing this much more diverse membership. It’s a process “that makes some delegates nervous,” Steffens observes. “But our union will be stronger for it.”

That certainly has been the case in Steffens’ organizational home within CWA. A rare contested election for president of the NewsGuild  four years ago has led to dramatic improvements in the functioning of that fast-growing 23,000-member affiliate of CWA. Using a more democratic “one-member/one-vote” system of electing their top officer– rather than the delegate-only convention method–Guild rank-and-filers chose Jon Schleuss, a young LA Times reporter, to be their new leader.

Schleuss defeated a long-time incumbent who had been a full-time union office holder for three decades. That upset victory and subsequent implementation of his reform program were both propelled by a surge of young media worker activism, involving more strikes and job actions. Schleuss is now backing Steffens as the candidate most supportive of future CWA organizing campaigns, first contract fights, and the struggle for labor law reform.

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at