Reform Officer Takes on Challenges Facing Women in Both the Teamsters and the Workplace

Sandy Pope is currently Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 805 in Queens, New York. Her local represents warehouse workers, truck drivers, office workers, and blue-collar university workers. Approximately 25% of the membership in her local are women.

Labor Notes interviewed Sandy and asked her what barriers she sees for women who want to be leaders in their union-to serve as an example for other women and in order to improve their union.

LN: Why is it important that women become more active in your local and in other unions?

SP: I fight for more women involvement for a few reasons. It helps to have women shop stewards because management will tend to be more respectful towards other women on the job after they've had to deal with a strong woman steward. I've seen them take the issues of women more seriously when there are women speaking up for themselves.

The women who do step forward have often been as tough as nails, and that benefits the whole membership. They are mostly older and they're done raising their kids. Nothing intimidates them anymore. They've gone through changes in management and they're still here, often after 15 to 20 years on the job.

Secondly, diversity in this local goes beyond the male/female divide. We have various groups of immigrants, people with various educational backgrounds, all working in a wide range of different workplaces. Nobody knew each other under the old leadership and no one felt they had anything in common. Having all different rank-and-file members, including women, become visibly more active goes a long way towards helping our members feel as if they are one local.

Finally, many women's life experiences give them excellent organizing skills. In the Coalition of Labor Union Women, an organization I used to work for, we used to give a quiz to help women think about skills they had gained in their day-to-day life and which could be used within their union. Women are fighting for their children at school, in the doctor's office, taking care of mortgages and so on. We would be able to say, "Look these are the types of skills a good union leader needs also."

LN:What are some of the reasons that many women hold back from running for office?

SP: A major problem is that we have too many examples of bad union leaders, who run their local in a top-down way. Women who have a different style don't see themselves in that way, and they think, "that isn't me."

Another problem is that women who do become active are often siphoned off into educational, political action or staff support positions within the union. These are all important jobs, but the members don't see them. Therefore, because women are rarely encouraged to get involved as leaders or spokespeople in the nuts and bolts of the union such as contract enforcement and contract bargaining they are often at a disadvantage when it comes to running for office.

LN:However, having organizing skills is not all that is needed to be an effective union leader....

SP: Being able to successfully lead a union through difficult negotiations or to defend the union against cut-throat employers is crucial if you want to be an effective principal officer in your local. Some local unions don't conduct their own contract negotiations. But even then, if women don't have the skills to handle grievances every step of the way, then management will call the shots and they may not win their next election.

Unfortunately, women activists rarely get a chance to gain these skills. Many bargaining committees are not representative of the entire membership, which means that certain issues will simply be neglected during contract bargaining. This means that if there are women in the union, they need to be part of the bargaining team. I think women also have a lot of experience communicating verbally and at the bargaining table that's an important skill. It's also important to communicate well with the membership, to lead them and inspire them, especially during contract negotiations.

Finally, higher-level management often have a lot of experience dealing with women. There are more women professionals that they are forced to deal with. However, lower-level managers and supervisors often hate dealing with women. When members see a woman standing up to a male manager, during contract negotiations or on the shopfloor, they're not only inspired, but they will respect you as a leader.

LN:How can women gain these skills?

SP: Women union activists need to become shop stewards. Having the chance to argue grievances is a really important way to learn bargaining skills and show that you can stand up to management.

If it's difficult for women to be accepted in their local and run for shop steward, they could ask to be assistant shop steward. They should learn their contract. They can go to all kinds of labor studies classes on handling grievances and bargaining. I also tell many women to volunteer for all kinds of things in the local and learn skills that will make them a resource, like doing research, costing out financial proposals and learning how to do a newsletter.

Women need to use and develop their skills to help organize the membership and build strength among their fellow workers. You don't have to be a shop steward to become a leader. You want the respect of the union leadership, you don't want their pats on your back. Trying to skip steps by kissing up to the union leadership won't get you anything but resentment from the membership and won't get you elected.

Also, I am a longtime member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the reform group within the Teamsters. Having a larger group of like-minded union activists to turn to for support, skills, and resources has always played a big role for me as a woman activist in the Teamsters.



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LN:Now you're an elected officer of IBT Local 805. What are you doing to provide leadership to women members in terms of becoming active?

SP: I left my staff position with the IBT International when Hoffa, the current President of the Teamsters, was elected. That broke my heart, because working to change this union with former IBT President Ron Carey was an extraordinary experience and honor. I came on staff in Local 805 in 2000 and in 2001 I was elected to my current position.

It's hard to get women active. About 20 % of the shop stewards in this local are women. And two out of seven executive board members are women, including myself.

But the pressures of family responsibilities prevent women from becoming more active. There are ways around that though. All our union meetings are open to families, they're short and we always provide snacks. We make sure there are small things that rank-and-file members can do without having to join a committee or take on a big job within the local. I also make sure I ask people to participate.

Finally, the staff in the local are all women. Women office workers in most locals are frequently very key in running the local. Members deal with them on the phone a lot, but then they're hidden and under-utilized. We make sure that they go into the field to talk with members and they come to all the meetings. The members really like meeting the staff they talk to on the phone.

LN:What surprises you the most as a union leader?

SP: I'm always amazed when I'm stopped from doing things that will help the union. I know why the old-guard stops me and I know why they say no. We have competing visions of how to build our union. But when our labor movement needs people who have energy and a willingness to fight and take chances, why would anyone in their right mind say, "no, don't do that"? Why don't they at the very least try to co-opt me? To me being a union leader involves sweat, it involves making an effort, wanting to learn, being willing to put your neck on the line, and being brave when you don't always feel brave.

LN:What about yourself? Why and how did you get a union job in the Teamsters?

SP: I quit college and I was offered a job in a state hospital in Massachusets where I had been working part-time as a college student. I got involved with a rank-and-file contract campaign that led to a militant state workers strike. It changed my life, as I decided that it made more sense to build unions as a way to empower people rather than become a social worker or lawyer. During the contract campaign I met activists with TDU.

My first Teamster job, as a warehouse selector, was an accident. Management hired me because they mistook my name-Alexandra-for a man's name. But the boss was a young guy who was somewhat enlightened and because I had experience working at Greyhound loading buses, I was qualified and he couldn't deny me the job.

However, I got laid off because they shut down the warehouse, so I went to driving school and learned to drive a truck. I got a non-union job hauling steel. This was a shitty job, and because it was non-union, I was being paid nothing. Steel is coated in grease to keep it lubricated so it doesn't rust, and then covered with tarps. Drivers for good union companies have nice clean tarps, but my scabby outfit didn't. Those tarps are huge and heavy. They didn't have any overalls that would fit me. I was constantly covered in grease from head to toe. When I could take showers at truck stops, I would have to ask a waitress to guard the door, because there weren't any showers for women.

Some union steel hauler felt sorry for me and sent me to his business agent at IBT Local 407, in Cleveland, and they helped me get a casual job in a freight company. That was back in the late 70s.

LN:That was where you became active in IBT Local 407. What experience did you have as a woman trucker and rank-and-file activist?

SP: Initially I was the only female tractor trailer driver. The local also had UPS workers and there were some women working at UPS. It took a long time to build credibility, but remember, I was also young. Senority is so important. Youth is always a problem, and coupled with being a woman meant that I had to prove myself. I went to every single union meeting. I wouldn't say anything, I just went and listened. Then I volunteered for anything I could-food committee for laid-off drivers, assistant shop steward. Being the assistant shop steward was important, as I could work on contract stuff and slowly, as I learned more skills, take on some responsibilities.

The flipside of being the only woman was that everyone knew immediately who I was. I was the only woman at meetings for quite some years. The first time I really spoke out was around the master freight contract negotiations. Jackie Presser, then President of the Teamsters, was getting ready to shove a bad contract down our throats. I said this is so bad that I believe we should remove Presser from office. Our local voted to impeach Presser and it passed unanimously. Presser is from Cleveland, and so our local got in trouble for that. That really helped me gain respect! But I never stopped volunteering, going to meetings, taking responsibility for work.

LN:What experience did you have running for office?

SP: The first time I ran for office, in 1983, was when I was a member of IBT Local 407 in Cleveland. I really wanted to help build a more militant local. People told me I couldn't possibly win in an all-male local. But I decided to try because other people encouraged me and I felt I had gained the respect in the local through the years.

I ran twice in that local, and the first time I was the only woman running. It was the scariest thing in the world and the campaigning was hard. To go and shake hands with strangers, on the loading docks and in the breakrooms, at all times of the day and night. Here I was, a 27-year old girl running for office. Many of the drivers wouldn't even understand why a woman was in their breakroom, because it wouldn't occur to them to think that a woman was in their local. I got a lot of "who are you?" reactions.

I did have a plus when it came to name recognition. Because I had a reputation of being a watchdog I ran as trustee. There were three trustee positions and I came in fourth. I lost by just a handful votes. The second time I ran, three years later, I lost again, but the election was stolen by the old-guard.