Interview: Reformer Challenges Hoffa for Teamster Presidency

Sandy Pope and supporters kick off her campaign for president of the Teamsters October 10 against 12-year incumbent James Hoffa.

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?



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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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #379, October 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


Wondering Why (not verified) | 10/14/10

Carey, Leedham and Pope are outstanding individuals huh? Too bad most Teamsters don't agree with you.

But hey, if that's going to be Sandy's campaign slogan, more power to her!

705 and TDU | 10/14/10

Good interview. Thank you, Sandy Pope for honoring the rank and file with the truth about our Union. And for providing us an alternative to Hoffa's program of decline and denial.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 10/12/10

I understand that hypocracy is part of politics, but as a journalist, Ms. Slaughter should do a better job looking at BOTH sides of the Sandy Pope story and not just attempt to create a fairy tale.

Over the last 8 years, Sandy Pope has lost $1,714,851 of her Local Union's assets. She has steadily lost members every year, going from 1297 members in 2001 to 1066 members today. That is almost 20% of her local's membership. These are facts taken off the LM-2 forms from the Department of Labor website and filed by Ms. Pope herself.

Ms. Pope says she would have handled the YRC situation differently 5 years ago. I'm sure we all would have done things differently if we could have forseen our country's economic collapse. She probably would have handled her pension fund differently, but she didn't. Her Local 805 pension fund is critically underfunded, in the red zone, and under a rehabilitation plan that requires 12.5% increased contributions from employers. Very few pension funds are in as bad a shape as hers.

Ms. Slaughter also glosses over the fact that she has been unable to put together a slate to run with her.

I understand the wont to portray a David vs. Goliath story on your website, but you are doing longtime readers like me a disservice. Please explore the WHOLE story next time.

djc (not verified) | 10/12/10

Interesting first post by the obvious Hoffa staffer. Looks like the opposition is prepared to smear Sandy right from the start.

It is a difficult time for both Mr. Hoffa at the International Union and for Local Union officers like Sandy. The record shows, however, that Sandy is struggling against the current rather than simply going with the flow as is the case with Mr. Hoffa.

I do not have the facts to dispute the first poster, however I would bet that most Local Unions have lost money and members in the last few years and many or most pension funds are under stress. I do know that Sandy is committed to organizing which is the main solution to many of the Union's problems. I do not see anything increasing at the International Union except obscene salaries and exclusive, multiple pensions for the top officers. Mr. Hoffa and his crew have lost touch – that is clear.

Sandy points out in her interview that the problems at YRC and in Freight have been a long time in the making. This is true and even casual observers can see that. The sweetheart deal Hoffa gave to UPS for UPS Freight (formally Overnite) was like pouring salt onto a very old and nasty wound. Even if Hoffa had not sold out the National Master Freight contract with the undercutting provisions of the UPS deal, things would still be difficult due to the economic times and the long time neglect by the Union of this once proud division.

It is certainly early in the race to say that Sandy will or will not have a slate of additional candidates. However, even if she runs and wins solo, the Union will be vastly better off having a leader who really is a working teamster unlike Mr. Hoffa who’s only rank and file experience was a few cushy summer jobs in Alaska. Mr. Hoffa has never been a steward, officer, organizer or held any position in the Union that would normally qualify a person to lead. If his last name was Smith or Jones or something other than Hoffa, he would have never been in office, which is more than likely.

I wish Sandy well and hope for her success because we cannot keep going in the Hoffa direction.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 10/12/10

It is quite telling that you call my post a "smear" when all I stated were FACTS supplied to the Department of Labor by Ms. Pope herself.

Sandy (and her supporters) want it both ways. They want to talk about Hoffa's record, but they want to avoid talking about their own.

Ms. Pope has a dismal record when it comes to organizing. That is a fact. Her record when it comes to squandering her local's treasury is even worse and her pension fund is in terrible shape. But don't take my word for it, look it up. It's easy to find if one desires to find it. Obviously Ms. Slaughter was not interested in finding these facts, just the TDU spin that fit her narrative.

If Sandy thinks she is qualified to lead the International Union, wouldn't it make sense to ask her why she has struggled so mightily to run her small local?

And again, don't bury your head in the sand. Find out the truth about Ms. Pope. And spare us the fairy tales and insults.

705 and TDU | 10/14/10

"Spare us the fairy tales and insults." That's funny. Funny "ha ha" and funny "odd." Hoffa's bag of tricks is about 95% fairy tales and insults.

These fakers have surrendered time and time again. They've just shed members and shredded standards. Local 805 can't skate on UPS initiation fees and dues. Sandy Pope has been fighting and succeeding in the toughest industries and conditions.

Ron Carey, Tom Leedham, Sandy Pope. Three outstanding individuals. Makes you proud to be a Teamster.