Rival CWA Prez Candidates Covered Up Violent Intimidation & Sexual Misconduct 

CWA President Chris Shelton and Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens, who is running for union president, is being accused of covering up violent intimidation by CWA Vice President Ed Mooney, who's also running for President (Photo: Wikimedia)

A new report by the Emergency Mutual Respect Committee, composed of nine leading CWA officers, raises troubling questions about the culture of violence, intimidation, and sexual misconduct within the nation’s largest communications and media workers union.

The report focused heavily on CWA District 2-13 and international union executive board member Ed Mooney, currently running for CWA president this summer, for violent behavior and even encouraging local union leaders to get violent with union dissidents. However, it also implicates the current CWA president, Chris Shelton, and his chosen successor, 51-year-old CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens, who is running for CWA President against both Mooney and CWA Vice President Claude Cummings. 

The report comes out as the union faces a high-profile lawsuit over the violent intimidation of whistleblowers who exposed sexual misconduct in the union. With the union in deep legal trouble over its handling of violent intimidation and sexual misconduct within its affiliates’ unions, some labor observers worry that it could lead the Department of Labor to investigate violations of the federal Labor Management and Disclosure Act governing union democracy. 

The report, which is out less than one month before the 600,000-member Communication Workers of America convention to be held July 10-12th in St. Louis, has the potential to shake up the presidential race to succeed Shelton as president. 

Currently, Mooney, Steffens, and CWA District 6 President Claude Cummings, a Black regional CWA Vice President from Houston, who led CWA’s Human Rights Department for many years, are locked in a close battle for the union presidency. (Under CWA’s constitution, all District Presidents are regionally elected, serve as Vice Presidents of the international union and sit on its executive board.)

Documents obtained by Payday Report show that Shelton, as well as CWA Secretary-Treasurer Steffens, who were constitutionally required to investigate these charges, failed to do so.  

Additional documents obtained by Payday Report show that Shelton overlooked sexual and physical abuse by former Pittsburgh CWA NewsGuild President Michael Fuoco. In multiple instances of violent intimidation and sexual misconduct under Mooney’s watch, both Steffens and Shelton failed to fulfill their constitutional duty to investigate and remove not just Fuoco but his politically-powerful ally Ed Mooney. 

(Full Disclosure: I was a member of CWA from 2013 to 2021 and was proud to have been illegally fired for union organizing in 2015 in the early days of the digital media unionization movement)

Not only did the two CWA leaders fail to investigate, but after two local union leaders complained in writing about Mooney’s encouragement to engage in violence against dissident union members, both Shelton and Steffens allowed Mooney to stay in power despite explicit provisions in the CWA’s union constitution that allowed them to remove Mooney. 

“We feel that we have suffered physical and mental stress and verbal abuse on numerous occasions. [CWA leaders]have repeatedly displayed unprofessional behavior, hostility, insults, and verbal intimidation. Members have stated they are afraid for not only their safety but my safety and the safety of our Executive Board, which primarily consists of women,” wrote CWA Local 2252 President Cindy Thayer, who represented a group of Piedmont Service Agents at DCA airport in a letter to Shelton and Steffens in 2020 that Payday Report obtained. “Many members are afraid to attend our general membership meetings due to either witnessing or being advised of this hostile environment.”

The investigation by the EMRC found that Mooney routinely threatened union dissidents with violence, engaged in homophobic and racist name-calling, and created a culture of intimidation in the local union. On one occasion, a receptionist for a Member of Congress complained that Mooney called him a “cocksucker” and threatened to beat him up unless he immediately put the Member of Congress on the phone. 

Finally, two local union leaders complained in writing to Shelton and Steffens that Mooney encouraged them to beat up dissidents during one union meeting.

 The Emergency Mutual Respect Committee report, which can be read in full here, was published last week and has caused a scandal within the union. When combined with documents and original reporting by Payday Report, it presents a troubling picture of a top-down, intimidating, and vindicative culture against union dissidents.  

Shelton: An Intimidating Enforcer from Ugly Telecom Traditions

Retiring CWA President Chris Shelton being elected at the 2019 CWA Convention (Photo:CWA)

In 2005, with the election of CWA President Larry Cohen, many hoped that CWA was headed in a new direction. Under Cohen’s leadership from 2005-2015, CWA developed as a progressive union. The union endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, formed committees to be more equitable, and experienced rapid gains in organizing over 50 media outlets in less than five years. 

However, since Larry Cohen retired in 2015, and Chris Shelton was elected President with Sara Steffens as Secretary-Treasurer, the union had changed dramatically. 

Chris Shelton, a Bronx native, who got his start as a telephone technician in 1968, had a reputation as an old-school brass-knuckled telecom union leader with a reputation for bullying and intimidating union staff and other leaders. Steffens, responsible for investigating violent intimidation and sexual misconduct abuse under the union’s constitution as Secretary-Treasurer, refused to investigate him or the violent, intimidating abuses committed by CWA Vice President Ed Mooney. 

According to the union’s website, CWA represents 150,000 AT&T workers nationwide. Instead of working under one national contract like Teamsters at UPS, the UAW at GM, or the Steelworkers at US Steel, CWA maintains over a dozen different contracts with AT&T. AT&T has taken advantage of this division to pit local union leaders against one another for the best contract. 

“For years, CWA has been a dog-eat-dog Machivellian union, where union leaders have stabbed each other in the back. And Chris Shelton always made it clear that he was the toughest dog in the room,” said one longtime CWA staffer, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. Indeed, when Shelton would hire new employees, he would make them pledge their loyalty to him, and they would face the consequences if they crossed him.

Under Shelton and Steffens’ leadership, the union refused to endorse Bernie Sanders in 2020, previous efforts to make the union more inclusive were abandoned, and the NewsGuild was rocked by a group of former journalists covering up sexual assault first exposed by Payday Report and later covered in a high-profile Sunday feature for the New York Times

Now, a new report prepared by the Emergency Mutual Respect Committee, formed by nine local and veteran union officers, most of whom had been involved in the union for decades, provides an even starker look at how toxic the union has become under Shelton and Steffens’ leadership. 

“Based on the many incidents reported to us directly and the language in the CWA Policy on Mutual Respect and the CWA Constitution, we believe there is overwhelming evidence that VP Mooney has a long-standing pattern of violations of Mutual Respect and a failure to abide by the CWA Constitution,” wrote the Emergency Mutual Respect Committee, “His reported behavior violates our CWA Mutual Respect Policy and cannot be swept under the rug.” 

The Emergency Mutual Respect Committee (EMRC) that issued the report includes CWA 7250 President Kieran Knutson of Minneapolis, CWA 1037 President Ken McNamara of Newark, UPTE/ CWA 9119 President Dan Russel at the University of California, CWA 1089 President Dolores Philips of New Jersey, CWA 4252 President Laneil Percy of Illinois, CWA 6222 Vice President Belinda Aguilar of Houston. IUE/CWA 81201 Retired President Alex Brown of Lynn, Mass., CWA 4309 Retired President Pam Wynn of Cleveland, and CWA 13301 Retired President Gwen Ivey from outside Philadelphia. 

The EMRC asks union members to read their report before delegates selected by local unions vote in this July’s leadership convention. However, they caution that they are not endorsing any candidates. 

“We are asking you not to vote for VP Mooney, but we are not making a positive endorsement of any other specific candidate,” wrote the committee in its report. “Some of us support D6 VP Claude Cummings; some of us support Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens. Some of us don’t know how we will vote at Convention”. 

(A full copy of the report of the Emergency Mutual Respect Committee (EMRC) can be found here)

Rival CWA Prez Candidates Both Covered Up Violent Intimidation & Sexual Misconduct

CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens, who is running for CWA president this July, refused to investigate violent intimidation and sexual misconduct within the union (Photo: CWA)

The report paints a troubling picture of violent and emotional abuse by Mooney leveled against his opponent and subordinates in his district. Mooney, a Philadelphia native, is the longtime president of CWA District 2-13, representing various workers across a variety of industries in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington DC.” 

According to the EMRC report, “it was reported by multiple local officers in multiple conversations that VP Mooney repeatedly suggested they punch their Union members in the face to resolve conflicts.” 

The report also states that Mooney bragged that he regularly carried a gun to work. One former employee of Mooney’s stated that he “reported VP Mooney making reference to his gun and warning her to be careful.” 

Multiple witnesses interviewed by the committee reported an incident in which, in the midst of an argument with union staff, Mooney stated, “I’ve never hit a woman BEFORE,” with emphasis on “before.” One witness even told the committee that Mooney became irate and violent with an intern receptionist for a Pennsylvania Member of Congress, who was unable to get the Member of Congress on the phone. 

According to the EMRC report, when the intern receptionist said that this was not possible, “VP Mooney berated the receptionist as an ‘idiot,’ a ‘c*cksucker,’ ‘a piece of sh*t whose parents should be ashamed of him,’ along with other abusive obscenities, and threatened physical violence.” 

Later, the Member of Congress, who was not named in the report, instructed Mooney never to speak to their staffer again. 

Mooney has denied many of the charges in the EMRC report. 

“A one-sided report was released to Local officers in an attempt to influence the outcome of this election,” wrote Mooney in a letter to union members put up by his campaign. “I welcome a complete and unbiased investigation of these accusations. Notwithstanding the events of this week, my campaign continues to build momentum and additional supporters and endorsements.”

Encouraging Union Leaders to Punch Dissident Members in the Mouth

CWA Vice President Ed Mooney (left) being sworn in by CWA President Chris Shelton (right) as AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson smiles (center). (Photo:CWA)

In the past week, Shelton has attempted to distance himself from most of Mooney’s conduct. However, both Shelton and Steffens still need to remove Mooney, as is their duty under the CWA constitution. 

After receiving two reports in 2020, Shelton claimed that he met with Mooney and admonished him for his verbal conduct with members. In a brief letter sent to local CWA officers nationwide this weekend and obtained by Payday Report, Shelton tried to deflect blame for not removing Mooney from both him and Steffens. 

“I am shocked and saddened by the scope of the allegations. Those who reported allegations to my office did the right thing,” wrote Shelton in the letter. “The two allegations that were reported were investigated and acted upon. If more allegations had been reported and were substantiated, especially of any instance of misconduct occurring after my initial admonition against it, more action would have been taken.”

However, a March 2020 letter obtained by Payday Reporshows that Shelton and Steffens knew Mooney encouraged violence against dissident union members and did not remove him from office as the CWA constitution stated would be necessary for such a situation. 

Mooney faced the most complaints from passenger service agents employed by regional airlines, largely workers of color, who complained about Mooney’s violent and racist behavior. 

As District union leader, he routinely disparaged ticket counter agents employed by the regional airline Piedmont. According to the independent EMRC report, “a former local official stated that VP Mooney called the passenger service agents members in her local ‘horrible,’ ‘crooks and thieves,’ ‘whack jobs,’ and ‘lazy and worthless.'”

Mooney also bragged to other union members that he intentionally retaliated against members. One witness told the EMRC that Mooney said passenger service agents were “retarded, and so I gave them the retarded staff rep.” Another witness reported that Money told him the passenger service agents were “the worst, and so I gave them the worst staff rep.”

In March of 2020, CWA Local 2252 President Cindy Thayer, who represented approximately 300 passenger service agents employed by Piedmont Airlines at DCA airport in Northern Virginia, wrote to Shelton and Steffens asking for permission to move their union into a different local to escape the toxic culture created by Mooney and his allies. 

“On numerous occasions, many DCA Piedmont members have made it very clear that they do not want to be a part of our local,” wrote Thayer in a letter obtained by Payday Report. “I believe that the entire local has been affected by their display of negative attitudes and threatening behavior, and this has thrown the local membership into an atmosphere of dissension.” 

When Thayer and CWA 2252 Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Baez suggested that upset Piedmont Airline workers be transferred to CWA 2201, Thayer said Mooney instead suggested that they become violent with dissident union members. 

“On numerous occasions, Mr. Mooney recommended the use of physical violence by myself and my members towards the members that were being abusive towards us,” wrote Thayer in a letter sent to Shelton and Steffens in December of 2020. 

Thayer says that Mooney gave her very graphic instructions on how to handle union dissidents.  

“Mr. Mooney told me to go to the DCA airport and go to the Local 2252 Area Vice President for Piedmont and “punch her the f- out’,” wrote Thayer. She states in her letter to Shelton and Steffens that Mooney bragged that he told CWA 13301 President Gwen Ivey, who was having problems with a local CWA 3654 officer, that she should “fly to Charlotte and punch her the f— out.”

As he described the complaints made by those dissent union members, Thayer reports that Mooney made an “inappropriate sexual hand gesture simulating self-ejaculation.” 

Creating a Culture Where Sexual Assault Flourished

The New York Times described Pittsburgh CWA NewsGuild President as the “Harvey Weinstein of Pittsburgh” (WTAE).

As CWA District 2-13 President, one of Mooney’s closest allies was the man the New York Times described as “the Harvey Weinstein of Pittsburgh,” Michael Fuoco, the longtime president of the Pittsburgh NewsGuild CWA local 38601/

Fuoco and Mooney regularly appeared together at rallies, and Mooney sang Fuoco’s praises constantly. Even after Payday Report published two reports in September of 2020 exposing sexual assault and union mismanagement by Fuoco, Mooney even continued to praise him publicly and allowed Fuoco to hold mass public rallies. 

As the District Vice President, Mooney had the constitutional duty to investigate Fuoco but did not. Instead, top CWA officials hatched a plan to smear sexual misconduct whistleblowers. 

According to reports first published by Payday Report and later confirmed independently by the New York Times, national CWA NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss knew about sexual assault allegations against former Pittsburgh NewsGuild President Michael Fuoco for nearly a year but refused to take action. The New York Times reported that Scheluss had even met with a sexual assault survivor of Fucoo’s but continued to promote Fuoco at rallies and on social media. 

Instead of investigating the claims of sexual assault within his own union, the New York Times reported that Schleuss and CWA leaders planned to malign my mental health as a former Brazilian drug war reporter suffering from PTSD to discredit Payday’s reporting

Pittsburgh NewsGuild CWA President Zack Tanner is currently facing a whistleblower lawsuit for physically assaulting me, which was caught on tape, and sending me graphic emails depicting how he wanted me raped.

Despite public reassurances that the lawsuit would be quickly dismissed as “frivolous,” CWA has lost on every attempt to dismiss the various charges of the complaint after nearly a year of battling it in court. The suit is currently in the discovery stage and will hopefully go to trial in the next year. 

(Interestingly, Willis, Williams, and Davidson, the law firm that has been flown in from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to represent the CWA in the sexual misconduct whistleblower case, boasts on their website a Vimeo ad edited by the law firm, where Ed Mooney enthusiastically praises their work.)

As CWA Vice President overseeing Pittsburgh, Mooney had legal responsibility under the CWA’s constitution to investigate these claims but never reviewed my legal documents or even interviewed me about the violence I faced.

Steffens and Shelton, like Mooney, also abandoned their constitutional duty to investigate violent intimidation suffered for blowing the whistle on sexual misconduct in the union. 

In December 2019, emails showed that Steffen was made aware of sexual misconduct against former Pittsburgh NewsGuild CWA President Michael Fuoco and refused her constitutional duty to investigate them for nearly a year. 

In February of 2021, Steffens also declined to investigate an email from current Pittsburgh NewsGuild CWA President Zack Tanner sent to me entitled “You little bitch ass autistic motherfucker”. In the email, whose IP address was traced to Tanner, the local NewsGuild CWA President graphically depicted how Tanner wanted me to be raped and violently killed. 

(Read a full copy of Steffen’s letter refusing to investigate violent intimidation against a union dissident in Pittsburgh)

In April of 2023, both Shelton and Steffens received an anonymous tip from a longtime NewsGuild activist informing them that Pittsburgh NewsGuild CWA Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Goldstein had physically threatened a longtime union member who had criticized NewsGuild’s CWA approach. An approach described as “toxic” and creating a “frat house” culture resulted in approximately 2/3rd of the union either crossing the picket line or quitting the union. 

When a dissident union member criticized the toxic approach of their union leadership within the internal union meetings, Goldstein threatened physical violence against him, according to multiple members past and present for the Pittsburgh NewsGuild. The threat came amid a series of clashes that saw violence deployed by anti-union and pro-union forces on the picket line in the high-profile newspaper strike. 

Once again, the Shelton-Steffens team and Ed Mooney, the district Vice President overseeing the scandal-plagued local, did nothing, as a toxic culture of violent intimidation and sexual misconduct bleed the union dry; many say that they indeed encouraged the cover-up.

A Repeated Pattern of Violence & Refusal to Investigate

In a letter widely circulated around CWA, Shelton claimed that he admonished Mooney for his behavior on two private occasions and that the union would launch an investigation headed by retired CWA Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Reichenbach, a union insider.

Much like in the Fuoco case, CWA refuses to allow an independent investigation to be done by a neutral third party with experience during third-party investigations. 

After the New York Times ran a Sunday feature story on the cover-up of sexual assault by the NewsGuild CWA leadership, CWA officers repeatedly promised to do a formal independent investigation. Instead, CWA hired a veteran police union crisis communication expert, who had worked for some of the most notoriously racist police groups in the country, to conduct a “listening tour” about feelings and attitudes toward sexism within the union. No indepdent investigaiton was ever issued.

In a troubling sign of the report’s lack of investigatory depth into Mooney now, Shelton asked that a report on what occurred be completed by the start of the upcoming convention on July 10-, just in time for Shelton’s protege to use the report in her bid to win the presidential election. 

The manner in which the report is being prepared raises troubling questions, given that independent reports of this nature often take several months to produce. Given the previous failure to issue an independent investigation into violent intimidation and sexual misconduct in the union, whether the union’s leadership will truly investigate violent intimidation and sexual misconduct within the union. 

However, outside of Payday Report, no other media covered the failure of the nation’s largest journalists union to produce an independent report on what occurred in the cover-up of sexual assault by Fuoco. (See our story on the perverse social media incentives many journalists received to stay silent on the various scandals within CWA and its affiliate, the NewsGuild). 

With the union holding its convention in less than three weeks, EMRC members are pushing for fundamental changes within the union. 

“As we reviewed the experiences people shared with us and the written complaints submitted to CWA HQ, the members of our committee wondered how this behavior could have been allowed to happen repeatedly and to be normalized,” wrote the EMRC. “Along with seeking to deny support for a candidate who has engaged in this reported behavior, we are asking you to pledge support for a resolution to strengthen the transparency, enforcement, and accountability of our CWA Mutual Respect.” 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]