A Houston man made history this week becoming the first Black president of the Communications Workers of America, the world’s largest telecommunications labor union.
Claude Cummings Jr. who previously was vice president of the CWA district that comprises Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, takes over a union that represents more than 600,000 workers in radio, television, newspapers and other media. It has some 1,200 local units around the world.
Previously, he’d led the union’s Human Rights Department and sat on the union’s executive board.
Cummings, 71, grew up in Kashmere Gardens, a historically Black neighborhood in the northern inner loop. He graduated from Kashmere High School and began work at Southwestern Bell Telephone, now AT&T, as a frame attendant. Cummings’ father also had worked in telecommunications at the company.
“Believe it or not, I was a union member because my father was a union member,” Cummings told the Chronicle. “But I had no interest at all, to be honest with you, in running for a union leadership position. I worked in the Jefferson Toll building in downtown Houston, and across the street from our building was the CWA union hall.”
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Cummings recalled one day almost 40 years ago looking out the window on the 13th floor where he worked and seeing three secretaries eating lunch outside the union hall across the street. Day after day, he saw them even when it rained. He learned from them that women could only eat lunch and take breaks in the women’s restroom. At the next union meeting, he led an effort that eventually allowed women to take breaks in the same place as union officers, who were at that time all men, Cummings said. That was the beginning of his involvement in the union.
“I was just really grateful that the members thought enough of my leadership over my 36-year history of fighting for workers, fighting for members to have power on the job through great union contracts. I think that’s why I was elected the first African American leader of this union,” Cummings said.
Cummings said that as president he will focus on protecting union jobs from outsourcing and advancing technology.
“My desire is to work with these telecommunication companies to stop the bleeding of jobs out of CWA,” he said. “To stop some of the contracting of jobs that are outside of the bargaining unit, bring those back into the bargaining unit.”
The Houston resident, who also is first vice president of the NAACP Houston branch and second vice president of the NAACP Texas State Conference, said he also seeks to strengthen the union’s relationships with civil rights organization in order to improve voter participation.
“We’re going to organize. We’re going to mobilize. We’re going to do strong political work, and we’re going to try to improve and speak out on social justice issues,” Cummings said.