New Driver for the Teamsters

Most contenders for top union office are eager to relocate to our nation’s capital, where many labor organizations still maintain large buildings whose impressive appearance belies the steady decline in union membership and influence. Life inside the Beltway still provides a feast of opportunity for upwardly mobile working class leaders. Among the perks are invitations to the White House (when the occupant is a Democrat), and a dazzling array of social events and fundraisers for labor’s many friends on “The Hill.”

Sandy Pope, a reform candidate for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, foresees a different future for herself, if she is elected this fall. Pope plans to skip the political partying and rent out the “Marble Palace,” the Teamsters’ huge mausoleum-like headquarters on Louisiana Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the Capitol. Pope would keep a small legislative office in Washington but move the rest of the union’s operations to a lower-cost hub of trucking and warehousing in the Midwest.

“We should be where the members are, in the heart of the Teamsters, not inside the Beltway, surrounded by lobbyists and consultants,” Pope says. “We can tell the politicians, ‘Come see us—in Chicago!’ ”

In this and many other respects—including her gender—Sandy Pope is a most unusual candidate to succeed James P. Hoffa, the current Teamster president. Hoffa is a thirteen-year incumbent, an attorney from Detroit, and son of the union’s most notorious head, James R. Hoffa, whose career was cut short by imprisonment for corruption and then a mysterious death.

Pope’s union is predominantly male, and its public persona has been blue-collar macho at best, gangsterish at worst. When Pope dropped out of Hampshire College in the mid-1970s, moved to Cleveland, and became a truck driver, mob influence was a serious problem in many big city Teamster locals. For thirty-three years, she’s been a leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform group launched not long after the first Hoffa’s criminal associates kidnapped and killed him. (His body was never found.) During the 1990s, Ron Carey, an ally of the TDU, won the Teamster presidency. Pope was among the talented reformers who filled high-ranking jobs in Carey’s administration. By mobilizing members and democratizing the union, the Teamsters under Carey were able to win victories like the 1997 strike by 200,000 UPS drivers and package handlers.

A former executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Pope has launched a direct assault on the Teamsters’ glass ceiling for women, drawing on her years of experience as a local union organizer, labor educator, and tenacious contract negotiator. (“Before cell phones,” Pope says, “my CB handle was Troublemaker—and I earned it.”) The Teamsters represent more than 400,000 female workers, but of the twenty-three voting members on the Teamsters executive board, not one is a woman. At the local level, only 16 of the Teamsters 407 affiliates in the United States and Canada are headed by women.

Determined to remedy this gender imbalance and restore “the fighting spirit” that she believes has been missing since the Carey years, Pope hit the road last fall. The signature themes of Pope’s campaign are the need to launch nationally coordinated campaigns to organize nonunion employers in core Teamster industries and to shore up the union’s financially troubled benefit funds.

Hoffa’s total compensation is now $362,889 a year, at a time when tens of thousands of his own members are losing their jobs, pay, or benefits due to the recession and contract concessions. Pope has pledged to take a pay cut and to eliminate Teamster treasury abuses like the alleged doling out of multiple salaries to more than 140 officials favored by Hoffa.

Within a six-week period, she managed to gather 50,000 signatures from rank-and-file members at UPS, major freight companies, and other Teamster employers.

She and another Hoffa challenger, his former ally Fred Gegare from Wisconsin, both expect to be formally nominated for the union presidency, along with the pudgy seventy-year-old incumbent, at a convention of 1,700 delegates held in Las Vegas early in the summer. Unlike in most national unions—which elect their top officers at such conventions, and don’t allow the rank-and-file to vote—all 1.3 million Teamsters will then get a mail ballot by mid-October. By late November, members will be faced with five more years of Hoffa or, if lightning strikes again—as it did in a similar three-way race in 1991 when Carey was elected with 48 percent of the vote—Pope will be sworn in at the “Marble Palace” in early 2012.

This year, former Hoffa coat-holders and courtiers have joined the chorus of rank-and-file critics who say it’s time for “Junior” to retire. An ex-Marine, Gegare argues that just having a famous last name is no longer a sufficient leadership credential. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, native is stressing his own past experience as a Teamster shop steward, local officer, joint council president, and international vice president, while criticizing Hoffa’s heavy reliance on headquarters staffers hired from other unions.

In late March, Pope and Gegare appeared before an audience of 200 Teamsters in Milwaukee. Their “candidates’ forum” was sponsored by Local 344, and the Teamster president was also invited. Hoffa ducked the debate and announced that his running mate, Teamster vice president Ken Hall, would appear in his place. When Hall backed out at the last minute, Pope quipped that “Hoffa’s record is so bad even his stand-in needs a stand-in!” During the entire two-hour exchange, not a single working member spoke up for Hoffa.

Pope paid tribute to the Wisconsin labor uprising.

“Your fight in Madison captured the imagination of our country,” she told the Milwaukee crowd. “You showed the world what the labor movement is all about: not stuffy guys in suits holding press conferences and making empty promises, but working people uniting together and mobilizing to defend our rights. This grassroots action was worth a lot more than the millions of dollars in blank checks our union writes every year to politicians who forget all about us as soon the ballots are counted.”

To hold onto his crown, Hoffa is collecting many four-figure checks of his own, written by Teamster officials around the country. Plus, he’s allegedly offering jobs and promotions to woo defectors back into his camp—a breach of union election rules. During Hoffa’s last reelection bid, his campaign raised and spent more than $3 million. It’s expected that his spending edge over Pope and Gegare, combined, will be more than five-to-one this time around. Pope is counting on rank-and-file volunteers.

A divorced mother of two adult children, Pope turns fifty-five this year, but looks a lot younger, thanks to her many years of kickboxing and running. If she does get elected, and then has to work with a board dominated by Hoffa administration holdovers, she’ll certainly need all the negotiating skills she’s acquired during four decades of working beside all kinds of Teamsters. If diplomacy fails, her black belt in Tae Kwon Do may come in handy, too.

Steve Early is a former organizer for the Communications Workers of America and author of “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor,” published this year by Haymarket Books.  

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