Interview: Reformer Sandy Pope Challenges Hoffa for Teamster Presidency

Jane Slaughter Oct 13, 2010

This article was originally published on Labor Notes on Oct. 11.

Yesterday Sandy Pope announced she will run against James Hoffa for the presidency of the Teamsters. President since 2005 of Local 805 in New York City, which represents workers in industries from warehousing to janitorial, Pope is a former truck driver, warehouse worker, steelhauler, organizer, and international rep.

Contrasting her roots in Teamster industries with Hoffa’s career as a lawyer and high-paid official, Pope told Labor Notes, “Maybe I should challenge him to a driving contest.”

Pope was first a Teamster in Cleveland in 1978. During a short break from the Teamsters, she was executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. She is a long-time leader of the reform movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). When she ran for secretary-treasurer in 2006, she was her slate’s leading vote-getter. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Participants in Labor Notes’ biennial conferences may be familiar with Pope as the leader of standing-room-only workshops on assertive grievance handling and bargaining. Local 805 is an aggressive organizer of new members—one current campaign is at Fresh Direct, the huge grocery warehouse–and has won noticeable contract improvements in the depths of the recession, such as increased employer contributions to union health and pension funds.

At a campaign kick-off held Sunday at the big UPS local in New York City, 100 Teamsters from the New York area cheered Pope as the leader who could turn their challenged union around. Two members of a movers local spoke about the help Pope had given their union.

Debo Otusile said, “When I joined 814 in 1988 everywhere you looked in New York City, downtown, uptown, midtown, all you see is 814 trucks. Right now we’re been invaded by all these substandard unions and we have a big fight on our hands. And our previous union leaders sold us up the river. And with the help of TDU we got new blood into the executive board and things have changed. Right now, even in this bad economy we won a great contract through the help of Sandy. She was there with us all the way during our contract negotiations. We got rid of all these has-beens that sold us out with three tiers, and they’re beginning to know 814 again in this city.”

Walter Taylor remembered, “Sandy was at our negotiations. And when she said she was the napalm, she was the napalm. She kicked ass.”

The campaign’s next step is to gather more than 34,000 validated petition signatures to support Pope’s candidacy, which will gain her access to campaign pages in the national Teamster magazine and the union’s membership list for campaign purposes. It must then garner support from at least 5 percent of the delegates to the IBT convention in June 2011. Mail ballots sent to all 1.3 million Teamster members will be counted in November 2011.

The Teamsters are a very diverse union with people in a raft of different industries. What issues will you reach out to folks on?

Protecting our jobs and getting better contracts, maintaining our health plans and pension plans and rebuilding those pension plans. That’s what all workers in the United States are concerned about.

Right now the union is not mobilizing the members in the locals to work together to get this done. It will take everyone’s time and effort to fight back against the companies and confront the problems with the economy.

Where do you expect support to come from?

When I ran for secretary-treasurer in 2006 with Tom Leedham, our biggest support came from the industries represented by master contracts, UPS and freight. They have the most experience dealing with the international.

And of course we got support where we had active rank and filers organizing, in New York and LA and Chicago, in warehouses and public service, in reform locals and where activists campaigned.

The other Teamsters I’m appealing to are those not covered by national contracts, the majority of our union. We’re getting picked off one by one in the locals that don’t have master contracts. We have a lot of members in lower-wage industries. Locals are facing huge concessions demands without backing from the International.

This is where the international can play a much bigger role trying to coordinate bargaining, not telling locals what to do but supporting locals more by helping them with resources.

Are there lessons you learned from the last campaign in 2006?

I’ve spent a lot of time since the last campaign reaching out to some local officers who I believe are smart and hardworking. There was an impression that we were anti-officer, which was absolutely wrong–we want everybody involved. Some people who supported Hoffa in the past, and want to build the local unions stronger, are seeing things differently. Our local officers bargain the contracts, come up from the ranks–we need to use that strength and build on it, it’s a huge untapped resource.

You’re saying the Teamsters structure is really different from a staff-run union.

Absolutely. We need to tap the power of our members and the locals. Top-down doesn’t work.

IBT bargainers have just agreed to extend a 15 percent wage cut at YRC, which is almost the only big company left in the National Master Freight Agreement. What would you do differently at YRC?

Truthfully, I don’t know that I could do anything differently at this point. They dug the hole five years ago, and long before that. There were many, many mistakes that led up to the situation we’re in today, the first one being very little organizing in freight.

Then the UPS Freight deal: At the last convention Hoffa announced they had reached a deal with UPS for neutrality in order to organize UPS Freight, a new division they had bought. But Hoffa didn’t tell people the quid pro quo. He allowed UPS to pull out of all the Teamster defined-benefit pension plans. Back in 1997 when we struck UPS, that was one of two main issues: more full-time jobs and to keep Teamsters in the Teamster pension plans. People put their jobs on the line to save the pension plans, and now they’re being told it’s a great idea to let UPS pull out. A lot of UPS Teamsters will get substandard benefits because of it.

So for the pension funds, including Central States and other funds YRC is party to, those steps were disastrous. You can’t operate pension funds without fresh blood. I believe Hoffa knew that, and he was in denial. He sold out the future of the pension funds in exchange for a deal with UPS to get members–and for his political gain in 2006.

Teamsters in freight are very wary. They are owed as much information as possible. Now it’s up to YRC members to decide. It’s a difficult situation to be in, and it could have been avoided.

You mentioned organizing in freight, which is now mostly a non-union industry. Is it possible to turn that around?

Wages and conditions in the non-union side of the trucking industry have gotten pretty bad. I was making close to the same amount of money when I started as people are today, and that was in the late ’70s.

But there’s a high demand for truck drivers, and it’s going to get even more so when the new regulations have an impact. There’s a demand for drivers and no shortage of people who still want to join unions. My local gets contacted all the time. Trucking is a growth industry. We need a long-term plan.

UPS is the biggest contract the IBT has. What are the issues there?

Hoffa gave them a substandard contract at UPS. This was a company making huge profits, and they treated them like a company having problems. They gave away some of the language we had won in the 1997 strike that forced UPS to create full-time jobs out of part-time jobs. Starting pay for part-timers is just $8.50 an hour. The grievance procedure is too weak–members lose faith in the union’s ability to win anything.

What’s the scenario where you could win the presidency? I remember that in 1991 Ron Carey won with 48 percent of the vote for his reform slate in a three-way race. You’re facing both Hoffa and Fred Gegare [an international VP who defected from Hoffa’s slate].

We could be in a similar situation. Fred Gegare’s campaign is really aimed at disgruntled Hoffa supporters, and there are lot of them. Over the last five years Hoffa’s support has eroded enormously, otherwise I don’t think Gegare would have taken such a big step, if he didn’t think there was a lot of unhappiness among their own supporters.

But I’m the real reform candidate here. The one who has a plan and who can win.

The scenario of a three-way race will work in our favor. We got 36 percent of the vote in the last campaign, which was a two-way race. It’s not a far reach.

What are the signs of eroding support for Hoffa?

His running mate Tom Keegel, the secretary-treasurer, is not running again. He is publicly critical of Hoffa for taking the union in the wrong direction, as he put it. Fred Gegare and Brad Slawson split off as well, two very vocal members of the GEB [General Executive Board].

There’s a lot of criticism of the Beltway mentality. They spend a lot of time and money on lobbying and insider politics in Washington and not enough time mobilizing and getting members involved. Even the lobbying isn’t done by members and officers; it’s done by hired guns, a consulting firm. The finances of the union are in bad shape. There’ve been a lot of cuts in staff that are hurting basic work in organizing and support to the local unions.

Running on your own without a slate, how possible would it be for you to govern? The IBT structure gives a lot of power to local presidents. Ron Carey encountered lots of resistance to some of his programs.

I don’t know that I will face as much opposition now. The union faces the biggest crisis we’ve ever had. What we’re lacking is leadership. I’m in favor of local autonomy. I like the way our union is structured. What’s been missing–a lot of what Hoffa does is PR and not a lot of action. We’ve got some good staff but we’re not utilizing them because we’re not connecting with locals, organizing members and locals to get out in the streets.

Once we start doing things, there’s unity in action. Once you get out in the streets, a lot of that political stuff melts away.

Do you expect being a woman to hurt or help your campaign?

Both. A lot of people are ready for someone and something really different. I think our members are no different than the American electorate that sees it’s time for other people to move forward and move things up. The men have not done a great job lately in our union; maybe it’s time to give a woman a chance. There’s still sexism, some people will think it’s too big a job for a woman, but I think most people have gotten over it.

The campaign website is here. Non-Teamsters who want to support the campaign can send checks to Sandy Pope 2011 Legal and Accounting Fund, Box 424, 315 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217. Or call 718-282-0282 to use a credit card.

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