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Sandy Pope Vs. History, Round 1: The Fight For Teamster Leadership Heats Up

Can Sandy Pope take on years of union history to become the first woman president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters?

On June 30, Sandy Pope won official nomination for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Pope's contest--against incumbent James P. Hoffa--will be one of the most watched union leadership races in a long time. Pope, a rank-and-file Teamster since 1978 and a two-term local union president, has gone from hauling steel to hauling the dreams of a newer breed of trade unionists. These reform-minded members want to see the Teamsters union survive and grow beyond the cronyism and corruption that have caused its membership to stagnate and its contracts to wither in recent decades.

I'm guessing that the members' dreams weigh more than the steel ever did.

Into the ring with Hoffa, Pope also carries the hope for a better life of people who have recently begun calling themselves "excluded workers": women, people of color, immigrants, literally those who have gotten shut out of decent-paying union jobs by exactly the guys who now run the Teamsters union. Pope is ready to bring excluded workers into the union, ready or not.  The trouble is, in order to do that, she has to win the votes of existing Teamsters. And they tend to vote for guys named Hoffa.

Pope's chops for the job are undeniable, but that's never stopped unions--especially those like the Teamsters who obnoxiously retain the anachronism "Brotherhood" in their names--from shutting women out of leadership. (Read Jane LaTour's excellent oral history Sisters in the Brotherhoods for a full treatment of how and why this happens.) Pope is a former steel hauler and truck driver who now serves as president of a small local in Long Island City. She's a dynamic speaker. She's a natural organizer: I've heard her speak and go off on a passionate tangent about a group of warehouse workers whom she had all ready to sign union cards and another union moved in to claim them...and the workers balked and still lack a union to this day. But  again, this isn't a fair fight: her skills, passion and experience just break like waves against the battlements of Teamster entrenched interests. As I see it, there are only two reasons she even has a shot at beating Hoffa.

One is her fearlessness, a quality she says she gained from driving big rig trucks and from having to deal with sexist truckers on the road. She may also cultivate that fearlessness effectively in her Tae Kwon Do practice. She holds a black belt and the readiness for anything is there in her eyes at all times. In a radio interview for American Public Media, she talks about how sad it makes her to talk with local union presidents who say they want to speak up for change but are too afraid (of what specific retaliatory measures, she doesn't say) of the Hoffa behemoth to publicly do so. New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote on June 27 that this fear explains why Pope doesn't have a full slate of two dozen local union presidents on her ticket, as Hoffa does. 

Pope's lack of such fear is enough to rally some supporters around her. She's starting her third term as president of Local 805. (I should mention that I don't know anything about her record as Local 805's president, which would seem germane to this discussion at first glance, but seems less so when you take into consideration that, as Teamsters International President, Pope would have the chance to pick her financial and bargaining advisers. This race, in my view, is about leadership platforms and public relations.)  On the campaign trail, Teamsters are attracted to her plainspoken offer of a shift from playing defense against the trucking industry to "rally the members together to strengthen the union again." Corporations could interpret those as fighting words, and they'd be right.

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