News & Politics

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.

But it's the weakening and crumbling of the Teamster institution under Hoffa that could provide a real chance for Pope--an organizer to the core--to get inside and seize control.

In her profile of Pope for New York Magazine, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote, "If elected, Pope plans to get back to basics: stop writing checks to politicians and instead use the money to recruit more new members, target workers at nonunionized competitors, and end what she sees as Hoffa’s autocratic ways. " That bit about recruiting more new members is what should scare Hoffa the most. Except for adding 30,000 private school workers and 7,500 airline ramp workers to the Teamsters' total membership of around 1.4 million, Hoffa's mostly failed to do much organizing in twelve years. He has instead opted to continue bargaining on management's terms, falling back again and again to defensive positions that keep the union and its members under constant fire from belligerent companies. Pope says this defensive attitude creates a false (and now crumbling) wall against non-unionized workers, who will eventually realize they need a union too: "After a while you have to think, should I just be mad at people who have a better situation than I do, or should I fight to try to get that better situation for myself?"

Some writers have been eager to render Pope's candidacy as an against-the-odds feminist pioneering story.  I think that's only a minor subplot here.  Don't get me wrong: we feminists will be the first to place our own wreaths around her neck should she win the race, but neither Pope nor any woman has anything left to prove in the "we can do anything the boys can do" arena.  Several men have already made a run at Hoffa during the last twelve years; all have been dragged down into the quicksand of anonymous non-history-makers.

Any candidate for Teamster president, male or female, would have to display political agility, star quality and PR savvy on par with late-2007-era Barack Obama in order to win enough rank-and-file support to dethrone Hoffa. (In fact, Pope likened herself to Obama in the Times story of June 27, saying "I think of winning the way the Obama campaign won; with ground action.") Pope has scads of all three; she is a 54-year-old politician, not a doe-eyed ingenue. 

 What remains to be seen is whether the energy and momentum of an organizer can, in the minds of Teamsters themselves, trump the entrenched, decades-old interests of a union in bad decline.  Pope, though, is not looking back;  I end with this hard-edged quote that measures the fathoms of utter crap in which she has swum in her long career as a Teamster:

"When I see people lose their jobs and I can't do anything about it...that's when I think well, it was nice just being on the road and having to just worry about me and the truck and the road.  But I have to say, you can't be too romantic about driving a truck. Because there's always winter."