Here are Sandy Pope’s credentials: She’s been a warehouse worker, truck driver and organizer, and climbed New York City Local 805’s ranks until becoming president in 2005 of the 1,100-plus worker organization.
But does that give her shot at becoming president of the giant Teamsters’ union?
Alexandra “Sandy” Pope thinks so, and this week she said he plans to face off with James P. Hoffa next year for the union presidency. “I’m the real Teamster,” she says. “Hoffa came out of a white collar job.”
She clearly has challenges to overcome. There’s never been a female president for the 1.3 million-member union whose membership, according to Pope, is about 30 percent female today.
Still, in her more than 30 years as a Teamster, Pope has been places where few female union members have set foot.
Indeed, women have rarely made it to the union’s top ranks and so Pope made union history when she was number two on an opposition slate in 2006.
Plus she comes from the small band of reform-minded Teamsters, who have been fighting the union’s leadership on and off for more than three decades.
“The members are fed up with Hoffa. He has been riding on his father’s name and the ride is over,” says Ken Paff, head of the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). He sees several reasons why this time may be different for union reformers who have failed in their last election battles with Hoffa.
One is a split in the ranks that could dilute Hoffa’s strength. Fred Gegare, a former Hoffa supporter from Wisconsin, has already put his name up for the union’s presidency.
Another is the union’s trouble in keeping up its numbers and fending off companies’ tough contract bargaining.
By Paff’s reckoning, the union’s membership has dropped by over 100,000 members since Hoffa took over the union in 1999. The loss would have been higher, Paff says, if the Teamsters had not merged with smaller unions.
And then there is the TDU’s unending mantra that union leaders under Hoffa have fattened their wallets while the union and its members have been suffering.
In 2009, according to the TDU, there were 120 Teamster officials who earned more than $150,000 in salary, the largest number ever in the group’s tallying over the years.
As president of local 805 in New York City, Pope says she earns about $100,000 in salary and benefits.
She doesn’t describe herself as an outsider at war with the union. Rather she talks of “getting along fine” with the union’s leaders in the last few years. She expects to run up against the same money problems as the last campaign when “we got outspent 10 to one.”
“But we’ve got the Internet and a lot of other ways to run a grassroots campaign,” she explains.
Measuring the way Teamsters outside of her circle have treated her in the last few years, she says she hasn’t encountered much negative reaction.
“I think most of the men are ready to vote for a woman. Some may not think a woman can’t handle it. But I think most of the members are ready for a real change.”
“I’m a problem solver,” she says. “It is the worst moment that the labor movement has ever faced and we have to get all hands on deck. You have to get every one involved to save this union and the labor movement.”
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.