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Amid Rare Presidential Race, CWA Members Seek Answers and Accountability from Top Leaders
An audacious plan for a first-ever CWA presidential debate was a major break with “business as usual.”
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An audacious plan for a first-ever CWA presidential debate was a major break with “business as usual.”
When a labor organization doesn’t have direct election of its national officers, hasn’t had a contested convention vote for union president since the 1950s, and has never held a presidential debate, how should members respond to a rare opportunity to vet candidates for top union office and hold them accountable for any personal misconduct?
Local union leaders, like Kieran Knutson, president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7250 in Minneapolis, had two choices. They could treat the current three-way race for the CWA presidency as a matter of concern only to a 1,000 convention delegates personally casting ballots at a July 10-12 meeting in St. Louis. Or they could find ways to generate broader debate about the future of CWA among 360,000 dues-paying members with no direct voice in choosing their new national leader.
“This election should be about ideas, plans, and program—not personalities,” Knutson declared in a March appeal to fellow union officers. “It is an important opportunity for all CWA members to take stock of where we are and where we need to go.”
In May and June, working with two different ad hoc groups of CWA activists, Knutson proceeded to play a key role in making sure that happened. Although president of a small AT&T local with only 400 members, Knutson first took the lead in organizing a highly unusual debate between the three International union officials vying for the top job.
This first-ever candidate forum was held on May 31, with hundreds of members, participating via Zoom and Livestream. They heard from—and in some cases directly questioned—CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens, who hails from my own NewsGuild/CWA local in California; Claude Cummings, a CWA Vice-President and civil right leader from Texas, who deals regularly with AT&T, the union’s largest telecom employer; and V-P Ed Mooney, a long-time Verizon contract negotiator who represents the mid-Atlantic states on CWA’s executive board.
As part of a nine-member Emergency Mutual Respect Committee (EMRC) committee—composed of active or retired leaders of locals with a combined membership of more than 30,000—Knutson joined the fray again this month when the EMRC object to Mooney’s candidacy because of his longstanding “pattern of bullying, bigotry, abuse, discrimination, threats of violence and harassment.” The EMRC based this finding on direct testimony, written statements, and related documents provided by seven witnesses of personal misbehavior which, the group contends, violates both a 20-year-old “CWA Policy on Mutual Respect” and the union constitution.
Mooney’s best-known public accuser is Shane Larson, a past co-president of PRIDE at Work, AFL-CIO. He is a former government affairs director for the CWA-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants, served as CWA’s own legislative director for nine years, and is now an assistant to national union President Chris Shelton. Shelton led CWA’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.”
In a June 16, 2023 letter to CWA local officers, Shelton reported that he had personally admonished Mooney on several prior occasions for making “bullying remarks” to fellow members, including ones that “were also racial in nature.” After the most recent incident in 2021, Mooney agreed to “attend sensitivity training” conducted by CWA’s own Employee Assistance Program. This time, Shelton said, the seriousness and scale of the EMRC accusations required an immediate investigation assisted by “two individuals who will not be members or on CWA’s payroll.” The probe will be headed by former CWA Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Rechenbach, a widely-respected figure in the union who will be reporting his findings before the presidential vote next month.
Mooney accused the EMRC of issuing a “one-sided report…in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election.” But he said he “welcomed a complete and unbiased investigation of these accusations” and seconded the Executive Board motion authorizing it.
While candidate debates—and now “Me Too” moments—are a standard feature of U.S. political campaigns, they are not part of the culture of union electioneering. In CWA, those seeking to become Executive Vice-President (a position later abolished) or Secretary-Treasurer in 1998, 2011, and 2015 never debated their opponents, either before or after the conventions where those contested races were decided. Asking candidates to fill out questionnaires to better determine their positions on issues is also rarely done.
Even in a relatively democratic union, most internal politicking is rooted in personal relationships, tribal loyalties, and union patronage networks. Delegates are courted privately and, in CWA, too often subjected to pressure to fall in line behind regional and national officials, who see themselves as the real power brokers. Thus, Local 7250’s audacious plan for a first-ever CWA presidential debate was a major break with such “business as usual.”
The idea of hosting a debate was immediately rejected by CWA’s Minnesota State Council, by a 5 to 4 margin. But the four locals, including Knutson’s in the Council minority, found four other CWA affiliates to back the effort. They also enlisted the CWA Telecommunications and Technologies National Mobilization Committee, a rank-and-file grouping, to host the Live Stream version on its website.
The live event on May 31 could also be accessed via Zoom. It was moderated by Knutson and attracted 270 participants, far more than expected. Representatives of telecom and manufacturing workers in Minnesota, wireless and wireline workers in Arizona, New Mexico, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, and a NewsGuild/CWA Freelancers unit in California got first crack at questioning the candidates. Other members posted their own queries and comments in the chat section of the Zoom. Since May 31, many more rank-and-file members from around the country have viewed the 90-minute exchange in this YouTube video version.
Steffens, Cummings, and Mooney all led off with a short introduction of themselves, a longer stump speech, and closing remarks. In the Q&A portion of the debate, issues highlighted in Local 7250’s candidate questionnaire (which only Steffens and Cummings completed) were often raised. The candidates were asked for their views on open bargaining; expanded organizing of non-union competitors; dealing with grievance and arbitration backlogs; better coordinating telecom strike activity; campaigning for Medicare for All; and basing CWA’s 2024 presidential endorsement on a binding membership poll.
Afterward, Steffens invited her two rivals to participate in a second debate, either before or at the CWA convention. When and if the presidential candidates meet again for another online or in-person exchange, doubts about Mooney’s fitness for the job will loom larger in the discussion.
On June 15, the day that CWA’s executive board discussed the Mutual Respect Committee report, Claude Cummings said he had “no knowledge of these allegations” against his opponent. He planned to ask questions, get answers at the board meeting and address the matter later. Meanwhile, Steffens pulled no punches. “CWA needs to treat bullying and discrimination within our own union with the same seriousness as when a member is harassed on the job,” she said, in a campaign statement. “We much create clear policies and procedures on how our Policy on Mutual Respect applies to elected leadership, including those of us on the Executive Board. The burden of responding and confronting should not fall solely on the targets of unwelcome conduct. We must change our culture together…”
That same day, at a pre-convention meeting of CWA delegates from the northeast, CWA Vice-President Dennis Trainor ignored the EMRC report and Shelton’s endorsement of Steffens. Trainor took over from Shelton in 2015 as leader of the union’s largest region, which includes 116,000 members in telecom, manufacturing, healthcare, higher education, and government jobs. On June 15, the 76-year old former telephone worker tried to get local officers to back Mooney, while also lining up support for his own uncontested run for another 4-year term.
This move was backed by Verizon strike veterans like Al Russo, Vice-President of Local 1101 in Manhattan, who told me, several weeks ago, that “a lot of telephone folks are asking, ‘How can we not support the guy who has been in lock-step with us in Verizon bargaining?” Yet Trainor’s poorly-timed effort on behalf of Mooney was strongly opposed by EMRC members or supporters like Ken McNamara, whose state worker local in NJ is the largest in District One. By the end of the meeting, Trainor threw in the towel and told D-1 delegates they could support whoever they wanted for CWA president (something they had been free to do all along, whether he approved or not).
Another subdivision of CWA sending delegates to St. Louis next month is the 48,000-member Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), headed by Sara Nelson. Media savvy and outspoken on many labor topics, Nelson joined the unanimous June 15 executive board vote to investigate the charges against Mooney. But she remains quite reticent on the subject of who should succeed Shelton.
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 that her own union has a chance to make history by electing its first female or African-American president, most Nelson fans, outside of CWA, might assume that she would be backing one or the other. Instead, CWA insiders report, Nelson actually encouraged Mooney to run, even though he’s the most politically conservative contender for the job. And now stands accused by a former high-ranking AFA staffer of engaging in “bullying, demeaning and outrageous rants and attacks for well over a decade.”
In a belated response to multiple email and phone queries before the Mutual Respect report was released, Nelson would neither confirm nor deny she favored Mooney. In a June 16 email message, AFA Communications Director Taylor Garland also declined to provide “any comment regarding the election,” but reported that AFA leaders and members were “still having internal discussions and weighing the candidates internally.”
Hopefully, AFA members will soon have their own opportunity to weigh the choices before them, after scrutinizing the records of all three candidates and asking them tough questions, in a public forum not just a closed-door discussion. As CWA’s first-ever presidential debate showed last month and the Mutual Respect Committee demonstrated this month, union problems and crises are often best addressed by bottom up initiatives. Waiting for leaders to act—or make decisions that members themselves should be making—is not the best way forward in any union, much less one like CWA that prides itself on being democratic, progressive, inclusive, and harassment-free.
Note: Steve Early has been involved in the Communications Workers of America since 1980. He is a former CWA international rep in New England who also served as administrative assistant to the vice president of CWA District 1, the union’s largest region. He is currently a NewsGuild/CWA member in the Bay Area and an active supporter of Sara Steffens’ campaign for president. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.