The story of Gene Mays, the first African American CWA officer, vividly illustrates the connection between the struggles for civil rights and workers’ rights. Mays was a coal miner in West Virginia until 1943. After a stint in the Army, he migrated to Buffalo, New York, where he was introduced to the union while working at a Western Electric Wire and Cable plant. He soon joined CWA Local 1162, which together with three other locals, 1192, 1152, and 1170, formed the foundation of CWA in Western New York in the ’40s and ’50s.
Rising quickly in the union, Mays was elected Local 1162 President in the late ’40s and appointed CWA International Staff Rep in 1951. As a leader, he immediately faced major challenges. These were the McCarthy years and unions were not spared from being smeared with the “communist” brush. Shortly after Mays’ election as local president, the company tried to decertify the union, making insinuations about the CWA’s affiliation with the CIO and Mays’ African American heritage. Under Mays’ leadership, CWA won the battle against decertification in what amounted to a strike for recognition. CWA was certified for Western Electric workers and CWA’s combined membership in Western New York grew to 2,000 members. Over the next 10 years, CWA’s influence increased as telephone workers were organized, with Mays playing a major role in supervising the efforts in upstate New York. He continued his active involvement when he was appointed Assistant to the Vice President of District One, by Morton Bahr, in 1969. He was still the only black on the staff.
At District One, Mays served as CWA’s defense fund agent during the longest strike in the union’s history, against New York Tel from July 1971 to February 28, 1972. As defense fund agent, Gene made the decisions of “who got how much and when” says Morton Bahr, retired CWA National President. “He knew he had to make every dollar go to keep the strike going and really take care of the needs. And I know that it took such a tremendous toll on him. He was never the same after that.” Gene Mays died unexpectedly in 1973.
Eugene Mays Award
Is given to any CWA Minority Caucus Member that has demonstrated by their involvement the commitment to the area of Organized Labor and Community. Individuals can be nominated by writing a brief essay noting their accomplishments in the Labor movement during their working career.
The essay should be no less than 500 words.
All properly received nominations then will be reviewed at that years’ conference by the Eugene Mays Award committee. The name of the award winner will be announced at the Awards breakfast or Luncheon of the conference.
Ed Barlow, Committee Chair