In Labor Movement, A Rising Female Leader

On this Labor Day, roughly 12 percent of Americans are labor union members, as compared to 20 percent in the early 1980s. Amid economic uncertainty, unions strive to keep those they represent employed — all by agreeing to contracts loaded with concessions. This is a criticism lobbed at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Sandy Pope is the first woman to run for president of the Teamsters Union. She speaks with guest host Jacki Lyden about her work toward empowering labor unions.

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JACKI LYDEN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Happy Labor Day. Coming up we'll talk about how we're all working so much that there's too little downtime to enjoy a family outing or even a good book. With all of the ways technology allows people to reach us, work life balance is more and more an imbalance. That's in a few minutes but first it is Labor Day.

A day in which we take a moment to think about the millions of Americans in the labor force. Only about 12 percent belong to a union today versus 20 percent a generation ago in 1983. And amid all of the economic uncertainty unions have agreed to contracts loaded with concessions just to keep those they represent employed. This is a criticism (unintelligible) that The International Brotherhood of Teamsters better known as the Teamsters Union and one member is so fed up that she's vying to lead the group.

Joining us now is Sandy Pope, the first woman to run for the presidency of the teamsters. The election is in October. Welcome to the program.

SANDY POPE: Thank you for inviting me.

LYDEN: You started out as a tractor trailer driver and you've worked your way up to being president of the Teamsters Local in New York. Why do you want to run the entire entity of over a million workers?

POPE: I want to because we need new leadership in this union and a group of us thought that I would be the best person to run. I have the most name recognition and I'm willing to do it. It's a pretty tough job to run for office in this union.

LYDEN: Well, especially when the membership has been declining?

POPE: Yes, but it's also why people want change so much in our union.

LYDEN: Let's talk a little bit about your background. You were studying in college to become a lawyer, you quit college. Tell us about your work and about becoming a driver. I understand your CB moniker was Troublemaker?

POPE: Yes, I got involved in a strike the first job I ever had out of college and I saw firsthand how unions could really empower people and actually it was the one thing that helped those workers get more than minimum wage and better working conditions. My whole life was transformed by that strike and I decided to work with other people who were trying to transform the Teamsters Union from the corrupt organization that it was at that time into a democratic union that would fight for its members.

LYDEN: So, you've belonged to the Teamsters since 1978?

POPE: Yes.

LYDEN: And now, you're crisscrossing the country, I understand, in your red Ford Focus trying to drum up grass roots support? You are running against the current general president James Hoffa Jr. and he has been in office since 1998, a pretty formidable candidate.

POPE: Yes, he is. He's very well known and his father certainly was very notorious but also a well-respected leader by the members of this union. Many members thought that his son would follow in his father's footsteps, but are quite disappointed now.

LYDEN: I'd like to read a criticism of your campaign that comes from one of Mr. Hoffa's slate in the election. He said Sandy Pope can wish upon a prayer of a rainbow. She's very critical but she doesn't offer any solutions. She doesn't have a rationale to justify her campaign. She's a vanity candidate. What do you say to that?

POPE: That's ridiculous, I went around with volunteers for two months and we collected 50,000 signatures in zero degree weather from all sorts of members all over this country. So, I would say that I'm far from being a vanity candidate and whoever made that quote also hasn't read my literature or got on my website, I guess, because I do have a lot of ideas for how to change things around. They are getting back to basics and that means getting the members involved.

Communicating between locals, working together, building solidarity within our union.

LYDEN: What are you hearing from people out there when you campaign?

POPE: I get messages everyday from people saying please help us - from North Carolina, from Kansas City, from Los Angeles. And they're losing pay, they're losing jobs, they're losing their pensions and they don't see the International Union fighting for them like they think they should.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE. I'm Jacki Lyden and I'm speaking with Sandy Pope who's running for president of the Teamsters Union and she's president of her own local in New York. The election is coming up in October. Sandy, unions have been declining. The Teamsters lost 700,000 members since their peak in the 1970s and as we've been saying have made concessions, not just on wages but also pensions, health insurance has been an issue. And of course, there's the general economic downturn to deal with.

What are labor unions - what is your union, the Teamsters Union - biggest resource right now for staying mobilized in these very tough times?

POPE: Communication with the members, organizing them. We have many locals that are operating by themselves and being left to fend for themselves against large corporations, whether it's Coca Cola, United Parcel Service. And if we unite together and get our members more engaged on the issues, then we'll do a lot better. We'll be a lot stronger.

LYDEN: And you mentioned United Parcel Service. That is the biggest single employer of people in the Teamsters Union, right?

POPE: Yes.

LYDEN: And you'd like to see a more aggressive campaign there?

POPE: Oh, absolutely. The members there are hurting badly. They're being pushed into inhuman production activity. The drivers that go out and deliver packages used to have to deliver maybe 120 stops a day. They were still very - this is a very efficient company, a very profitable company. And now they're expected to deliver 190 stops a day. This is just in ten years time, and some of it is because of technology, but there's only so fast you can drive and only so fast the human body can move.

People are hurting their bodies. They're working ridiculous hours and they're getting home so late they don't see their families and that kind of thing is going on throughout corporate America, where these productivity pushes are going on. Use of technology to monitor people and to push people even more and rather than hire people, by the way, we've been talking - there's a lot of talk of jobs and how you create jobs. Well, a lot of these companies are eliminating full-time jobs by pushing the people that they have to ridiculous numbers of hours and speed.

LYDEN: I'd like to ask you about being a woman in this campaign. I'm looking at a picture from you from New York magazine. You're with about six brawny guys. It says you sometimes hold meetings at Desmond's Tavern in Manhattan. Some people might think of the Teamsters as very much a predominately male domain. It is predominately male, but are women getting more involved? You say that you were one of the first women you ever saw at even your local meetings back in the day and this in 1978.

POPE: Women are getting much more involved in the union. We probably have 25 percent of the membership are women. There are more women in the leadership as well, but we haven't pushed into the leadership of locals very well and Jim Hoffa only has one woman on his entire executive board slate out of I think it's 26 members. And so I think that's a very sad statement.

LYDEN: And we'll just mention that only 16 of 407 locals across North America are lead by women. I'd just like to ask, what was it like to be a tractor trailer driver for you? Your CB moniker, Troublemaker.

POPE: It was scary at first, learning to drive, and there were men that didn't like me driving a truck or would make fun of me, but there were plenty of other men that really reached out and were helpful and showed me the ropes. It was difficult loading the trucks and doing the physical labor involved and I just had to get a little bit stronger. But I really worked hard to become a part of the union and show the guys that I wasn't just somebody there to look for help from somebody else; that I was going to be a good worker, a good driver, but also a good union member.

LYDEN: Why should unions be the ones to protect workers, Sandy Pope, instead of just having general regulations in place?

POPE: I think unions are the best because the members themselves can dictate how they want to bargain with a particular employer and it's a group activity that I think is a more wholesome way to do things than - you know, I talked to many friends of mine and other workers who are in non-union environments and it's a dog-eat-dog situation. You don't know who's going to stab you in the back or older workers get fired all the time and replaced with younger workers. That sort of thing doesn't happen when there's a union.

LYDEN: Are you worried that unions are a thing of the past, a hindrance on business, a jobs crusher?

POPE: No, not at all. I think that unions created the middle class in this country and that they provide respect on the job and all sorts of regulations that are in place are because unions pushed for it. So public education, eight hour day, overtime. All those things came because unions pushed for those things, not because some elected official thought it was a good idea.

And if we relieve that pressure, if we don't have that pressure, we're going to go backwards and we are seeing it go backwards. Look at the attack on public workers right now.

So the unions must turn things around and get stronger and there's no shortage of people who want to join unions. It's just very difficult to do in this environment right now.

LYDEN: We are thinking about Labor Day. What's resonating most in your campaign? The excitement of being the first woman or knowing what it's like to have the same job that a lot of the people you want to represent have?

POPE: It is exciting to be a woman in this campaign, but frankly, it's not the first thing I think about at all. What's exciting to me and gratifying is that it's building in momentum. Fifty thousand people signed petitions for me to run a year ago and I was very proud that we were able to get that kind of support and it's just growing and growing.

And I'm glad that I've been able to give people hope that we can turn this union around. We're getting bigger and bigger groups of people gathering as I travel around the country and I have hundreds of friends on Facebook and people contacting me every day by email; very happy that there's a new course being pushed in this union that is going to respect the members, listen to them, help them get stronger and better leadership at the local level, as well.

I really look forward to being able to unify this union, but also to reach out to non-union people out there. We should be defending everyone, all workers in this country, not just our union members.

LYDEN: Sandy Pope is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Teamsters, and she's vying to become the first woman to run for president of the Teamsters Union. And she's joined us from our New York bureau.

Thank you very much, Sandy Pope.

POPE: Thank you.

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