HOUSTON – As John the Baptist was described as“a VOICE of one crying in the wilderness”, Houston’s Kashmere Gardens own born and raised Claude Cummings, Jr.’s life runs parallel with that inference. Since as early as he can remember he has lended his VOICE to the community, corporate America and political world. With that same VOICE, he has been used as a mouthpiece to rightfully detest the ills, discriminations and prejudices that have arisen within the workforce by way of serving as a union leader. Furthermore, the Lord has used his VOICE to minister to the body of Christ through the soothing sounds of melodies produced by his nationally recognized quartet group, Endurance. However, the journey to this destination has not come without a cost, much hard work, and dedication.
Cummings was one of three sons born to the late Gladys and Claude Cummings, Sr. His father worked as a janitor for Southwestern Bell (now AT&T) and was very instrumental in his life. After the Consent Decree in the late 1960’s, his father was named as one of the first African-Americans to go from a janitorial position to a non-janitorial position. At which point he became a Crossbar SwitchmanClaude’s father maintained a good reputation while employed by AT&T and was known by many fellow employees. Although his father worked a lot to support their family, Cummings declared that his mother instilled within he and his brothers values and morals that have taken him to many places. Therefore, he reverences both of his parents as “true inspirations” in his life.
Claude Cummings, Jr. attended Kashmere High School and was very active while in school. He served as President of his graduating class, Company Commander in ROTC, and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” He graduated from Kashmere High School in January of 1970. Afterwards, he attended Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was there that he met his wife of 43-years Ruth, who is a native of Selma, Alabama. Eventually, the two of them moved to Houston and began a life and family together. It was during this time that Cummings worked a variety of jobs, but experienced being laid off at many of them. However, he was determined to excel, and one day he put in an application with AT&T. After growing impatient of waiting for AT&T to make contact with him, he made a decision to enlist in the service.
He proceeded to take a physical and obtained the required prerequisites to enlist. The very day that he was supposed to report to fill out his final paperwork, he remembers that he was sidetracked. He was on the bus on his way to complete the process for his enlistment and passed by the AT&T employment office. He said, “It was just like a voice in my head that admonished me to get off of the bus and go check on the status of the application I’d put in.” Upon heeding to that voice and entering the office the first person he saw was Zorna Jefferson (wife of Howard Jefferson). Ironically, she was working in the employment office, and he introduced himself. She explained that she was going to give him a call that very same day. She gave him the paperwork to go and take a physical and other employment documentation to fill out. Needless to state, on August 20, 1973, he began a career with AT&T at 1401 Jefferson Street. During his initial employment with AT&T, he worked as a Frame Attendant and Communications Technician, maintaining systems for NASA.
Cummings shared that his father had already encouraged him to join the union, so he did and became familiar with others, and was involved in the elections. At that time, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to run for any offices, but he was very supportive of the people who did, and assisted them with getting elected. But, after arrogance rose its head up in some of the officers, he begin to take a step back.
As time passed, one day while in his office he happened to look outside. Immediately, he zoomed in on three secretaries that were sitting under an umbrella outside eating. Two were White and the other Italian. He thought to himself that it was awfully strange, but then dismissed the thought and said within himself, “Well, I guess if they want to eat outside, then they can.” But as the days passed, he realized that they continued to sit outside even in the rain. Finally, he made up his mind to go and inquire of why they were outside eating in the rain. They responded by informing him that members of the union were using up all the money. Many people were calling in about the mis-management and they were told that they couldn’t eat in the restaurant, nor take breaks where the officers took breaks. Instead ,they were told to take their lunches and breaks in the women’s restroom. Much to his chagrin, the ladies even took him to the restroom and showed him where there was a table and a couch set up for the purpose of them eating lunch in there.
Hearing the grave injustice being committed to these women, the following week at the union meeting, Cummings made it his business to speak out about how the union were treating the members. Undoubtably, he gave quite a compelling argument. Because once he finished, there was over 75 women behind him rooting him on. By the time he finished, they simply said, “A leader is born!” It was from that experience that those women took to him and ran a campaign in his honor and he won the election as Vice President of Communication Workers of America, District 6 on a major scale. This proved to be a major accomplishment, because he had no previous knowledge about leading a union, nor had he ever served as a steward like other union candidates seeking this type of position. Cummings stated, “I was just a man that looked out and saw wrong and decided to confront it head on.” It is also vital to denote that during this era, the local union consisted of predominately White males, so his election to such a seat really spoke volumes.
While serving as Vice President for the union, Cummings was pulled off of his job one day. At that time he was appointed as the Quality of Work Life facilitator. This position was developed off of a union-company partnership. It served to give employees a voice on the job, whereas AT&T wanted to engage employees in the business. From there, Cummings and his team formed committees where they would discuss issues which decreased the need for people filing grievances and created a platform where employees could address their concerns on a different level. Operating as a facilitator in this sector yielded Cummings with his own office located at 3100 North Main. It enabled him to cross the city talking to various individuals about the Quality of Work Life program. This feat created a path and avenue for him to build relationships with all types of politicians and contacts. He would go on to serve in this capacity for 12 years.
After continually being shaped by God, Cummings revealed that there was a White man named BJ Etzel who was the president of the local union at that time. During an interview, Cummings, reminisced of Etzel’s humility and warm personality. Etzel intentionally took off for a year which gave Cummings the opportunity to gain even more exposure. This exposure served to assist him when he ran for president of Communication Workers of America, Local 6222 (representing more than 4,000 members), and won.
Another incident occurred which further complimented his leadership qualities. One of the functions that the union adhered to was the distribution of donations to politicians. There arose a time during Cummings’ administration that he found out certain African-American politicians were not receiving the full amount of their donations, because certain members of the union believed that “their seats were safe.” So he took the initiative to change the unbalances to ensure that everyone in his union were treated fairly, regardless of race, gender or any other factors. Another occasion arose and AT&T solicited his help for getting state-wide approval for the newly launched AT&T Uverse at the time. It was a task that could only be done through legislation. Cummings took on the challenge, and went to Austin and lobbied with State Representative Sylvester Turner, Senator Rodney Ellis and other African-American legislators. Collectively, they were able to get the bill passed. He would go on to remain president for over 11 years.
At a time when Cummings announced that he would be retiring to assist his wife with a printing business that she decided to start, another door was opened. A group of White men within his region from varying states called him and asked him if he would be a candidate for the Regional Executive Vice President of the union, representing members of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Just being considered for such an appointment was an amazing feat. Primarily because the natural progression of the hierarchical structure to obtain such a seat was that there are several appointed positions that one would serve on first and then become an assistant to the Vice President. At that point, the assistant would be the heir to the position, so it is very seldom that a local president would run for office. Yet, the group that approached Cummings were convinced that he “could better represent them, help rebuild the district, because they were losing jobs, and secure better contracts.” As a result, he was elected in 2011. Two years later, he was able to bargain his first contract. This entitlement deemed him as the first African-American to negotiate a contract for the union. During his tenure as Regional Executive Vice President, he has already seen great success.
The mild-mannered Cummings rests assured that his father had a great deal of influence with him initiating a career with AT&T, as well as being elected into some of the positions that he found himself serving in. He stated, “There were times when people thought that I was my father, based merely off of the name similarity. But once they found out that it was his son, they still supported me, noting that if I was anything like him, then I must be alright.” He continued to say, “Through it all, I truly believe that God has always had His hands on me, because there were times when I was unsure of what direction I was going to go in but whenever I made a decision on where I think I was going to go God opened up another door. I have been blessed with leadership qualities from elementary to junior high to high school.” He added, “To say that some man took me by the hand and guided me through life is just not a true statement. But what I have had was parents who instilled values in me such as integrity, honesty, teachings of making sure your mouth and feet move in the same direction, and above all they kept me grounded in the church.”
Throughout the years, Cummings stated that there have been several individuals who have served as inspirations to him. Amongst them is the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cummings stated, “I followed Dr. King for many years and remember vividly the day that he was killed. It was the first time I saw my father cry.” Another motivational character in his life is his brother-in-law, Rev. James Nelson Turifoy, of Chicago, Illinois. “He always gave me advice in life and taught me a great deal as it relates to business.” One of the key things that Rev. Turifoy taught him was “In life when you’re dealing with people with authority and power, it’s best that you put yourself in a position, where they owe you and you don’t owe them.” To this day, Cummings expressed that this method has been one that he has adapted into his own personal and professional life, and it has brought him a long way. He also regards Andrew Burks as a friend that he worked with in his early professional career and they still remain friends to this day.
In regards to his career as a union leader, Cummings expressed, “The joy of my job is being able to help people, especially young Black people. I get asked all the time, when am I going to retire and I tell them, ‘I’m going to retire when I get to the point where I feel like I don’t want to help people anymore.’ He continued to say, “Unions are the last line of defense for the middle-class. Unions built the middle-class, and it’s shrinking. When one percent of the people in a country own the wealth, at what point will the 99 percent wake up and say, ‘enough is enough?’”
When asked of advice to the Black community, he stated, “We should be ashamed of ourselves, because other ethnicities know the power of our vote, but we don’t. We need to wake up and vote and start putting people in office that care about us and our community. I don’t care how rich you are, your vote is no better than mine if I’m poor. Voting is one thing that equals everyone across the border. Something that really bothered me was when the Supreme Court knocked down Section Four of the Voting Rights Act. It was at that time that there should have been rioting all over the country. But no one barely said a word.” He believes that moments that resulted from slayings such as the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and James Byrd, Jr. incidents should be turned into movements. To that regard, he has personally committed himself to working actively to put in place Although Cummings tends to operate under a very stressful routine having served as Vice President and President he noted that a person has to be rooted and grounded in something. “That outlet for me is my family and Endurance,” he said, referring to the infamous quartet group that he started with two other friends that he’s sung with since high school (Michael Robertson and Earl Sampson). “When I have gone through a stressful period of time or any difficulty in my life, Endurance brings me all the joy in the world – it’s my exhale,” the Vice President assured. He regards that his best experience out of criss-crossing the nation singing the powerful news of the gospel, occurred when they were singing at a prison.