Magazine article The Progressive

New Driver for the Teamsters: Can a Progressive Woman Take the Wheel?

Magazine article The Progressive

New Driver for the Teamsters: Can a Progressive Woman Take the Wheel?

Article excerpt


Most contenders for top union office are eager to relocate to our nations 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. …

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