To Rebuild Teamster Power

an interview with Sandy Pope

SANDY POPE IS the candidate for General President of the Teamsters Union in the election this coming October, running against incumbent James Hoffa Jr. She’s a longtime member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and president of Local 805 in New York City. She was interviewed by Dianne Feeley from the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: Why do you want to be General President of the Teamsters at a time like this?

Sandy Pope: You’re not the first to ask that! The Teamsters Union has a lot of potential, which is not being realized. Hoffa likes to call it “America’s Strongest Union” and he’s right, if we tap our potential power. We’re strategically located in vital supply-chain industries. We should be growing in numbers and strength. We should be leading the labor movement — and we can be.

I want to do what Hoffa is afraid to do: tap the talents and energy of Teamster members and local officers. When I see Teamsters, I see the power of mobilized members. Hoffa sees a threat to his job.

ATC: What plans do you have for preparing the next United Parcel Service contract? We understand that UPS part-timers earn only $8.50 an hour.

SP: You’re absolutely right, we can’t have our UPS part-timers starting at the minimum wage. Hoffa went to UPS when they were making record profits [in 2007] and gave them concessions. He gave away the clause that was supposed to create fulltime jobs, which was a fruit of our 1997 strike victory [under reform union president Ron Carey — ed.]. He gave them a substandard deal for their UPS Freight subsidiary, and divided our freight Teamster division so they have a worse contract than other freight workers.

Worst of all, he let UPS exit the Central States Pension Fund. What an irony — his father Jimmy Hoffa built up that fund — that Junior gave the big employer an exit pass. Now that fund is on the ropes, and other employers have followed UPS’s lead to bust Teamster pensions. The Teamster multi-employer pension plans are key element of union power [because members’ pensions aren’t dependent on their own employer alone — ed.].

The good news is that everywhere I go, UPS Teamsters want to turn that around. Even in this recession, UPS is making record profits. They’re doing it through productivity  increases that come off the backs of Teamster members through harassment, speedup, excessive overtime and elimination of fulltime jobs.

This is the story of the U.S. economy. Our jobs are getting harder and worse. And all of the gains are going to the top.

I want to start a contract campaign in early 2012, that mobilizes Teamster members and takes the fight to UPS in a big and public way. UPS is our flagship contract with 250,000 members. This is where we’ve got to plant our flag and go on the offense.

ATC: How do you plan to win when you obviously don’t have the kind of money that Hoffa has to spend?

SP: We’re never going to outspend Hoffa, it’s true. He has a multi-million dollar war chest.  We have to win this election the way we’ll rebuild our union’s power — by mobilizing at the grassroots. We have a rank-and-file army out there, talking, leafleting, texting, and spreading the word in the shops and on the road.

In 2006 when I ran on a slate with presidential candidate Tom Leedham, I got 100,000 votes. In a three-way race, we need 150,000 votes to win. If we keep building, we can do it. It will come down to Hoffa’s big-money PR campaign versus our grassroots campaign.

One thing we changed was to target Hoffa, and run only against him. It’s a new strategy for this election. We decided to focus on Hoffa, the main problem and the one who holds the reins, rather than take on every regional leader on Hoffa’s slate.

ATC: So you are not running a slate for the executive board. What kind of strategy would you need once you get in office, given the makeup of the Executive Board?

SP: Yes, it has risks. If I win, I will need to work with members of that executive board. Of course, they will have to work with me, too, and in this union the General President holds a lot of power. I think it can be done, and I’m ready to do it.

I’ve repeatedly said that we’ve got to end the politics of retaliation in this union that is used to keep local officers in check. That only weakens. To meet the challenges, we’re going to need all hands on deck. If your local is organizing, you will get support, regardless of whom you supported in the union election.

If you have ideas for our UPS contract campaign, you’ll be a part of the process. I think a positive program will bring more local officers on board, and more International officers, too.

One challenge is to get members, who are used to voting for a slate, to avoid that and to vote for me as an individual for president. That’s an educational challenge, we’re working on it.

ATC: What have you learned being a woman in a male-dominated industry that is helpful to your campaign?

SP: First, I learned to have tough skin. Guys weren’t used to having a woman driving over the road when I started. Some of them could get pretty nasty on the CB. I learned to tune it out and focus on what was important. That’s come in handy more than once on this campaign. Teamster politics can get ugly.

A lot of Teamsters welcomed me into the union. They taught me the craft and helped me learn how to organize. I was in Canton, Ohio when Teamster steelhaulers launched a wildcat strike and worked for weeks as a volunteer until we won that strike. I cut my teeth on picket lines and organizing drives. I learned from that experience that real union power comes from mobilized members.

My opponent says, “The Hoffa name means power.” That’s a campaign slogan, not a strategy.

ATC: Unions have typically given money to the Democratic Party, seeing it as responsive to the issues facing workers. Recently Richard Trumka has suggested this isn’t a reasonable strategy. What do you think?

SP: A month ago we had the Teamster International Convention. Five days of speeches and resolutions. The political resolutions were generally fine. But it was all just that, resolutions — not action plans. The message from Hoffa was that labor was doing fine politically until Governor Scott Walker and other Republican governors got elected.

They’ve been a disaster for working people, but they’re not alone. I live in New York City. Look at what our Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo is doing. The war on workers didn’t start with the Republicans in 2010. Corporate America has been waging a war on us for a long time.

As General President, I will stop writing blank checks to politicians and will put our political action funds to work mobilizing Teamster members and our allies to fight for our issues. I think we need to look at what our political opponents do sometimes. The Tea Party has had tremendous impact — they just forced giant cuts in social programs and jobs over the debt limit, and they started that in the streets, tapping people’s frustrations.

The Teamsters, and labor as a whole, need to be more creative, more like a social movement, and more locally oriented. Labor needs a grassroots strategy to mobilize our political power — and we need a grassroots strategy to challenge corporate power in the workplace.

September/October 2011, ATC 154