On a Quest to Make History

The Woman Who is President of a New York Teamsters Local is in an Uphill Race for Secretary-Treasurer of the National Union

By Stephen Franklin
Chicago Tribune staff reporter

October 12, 2006. Say a mean-looking, burly guy starts giving Sandy Pope a tough time at a Teamsters union meeting.

Her inclination is to walk up to him and ask what's his problem.

"I'm pretty in your face," she said about the style she has relied on since becoming a Teamster almost 30 years ago.

"It doesn't occur to me to be scared, and sometimes I think that is not wise," said Pope, 50, the No. 2 candidate on a slate challenging Teamsters President James P. Hoffa for the leadership of the 1.4 million-member union. She is the first woman to do so in Teamster history.

Whether her grit will win supporters is another issue. Ballots went out last week, and counting will begin Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C.

Pope's running mate is Tom Leedham, 55, a Teamsters union official from Oregon who, in his third try on behalf of the union's reformers, is facing Hoffa, 65. Pope, who heads a small local in New York, was in Chicago recently trying to drum up support for her ticket.

Leedham's support dropped from 38 percent of the vote on his first effort to 35 percent in 2001. And Hoffa expects to rake in more than $2.8 million in contributions, a slight increase over the last campaign, while Leedham's slate has raised only $300,000, say officials from the two campaigns.

Even Ken Paff, head of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, or TDU, a small dissident group that has fought Hoffa from the day he took over the union in 1999, is hesitant to predict Hoffa's downfall.

"It's hard to call what is going to happen," Paff said. "[Leedham] is running more against a cynical `don't' bother to vote' mood than Hoffa."

Meanwhile, Rich Leebove, Hoffa's campaign spokesman and a Michigan-based consultant for the union, said, "Leedham has never been a serious candidate."

Hoffa backed out of a debate with Leedham set up by the union's court-appointed election officer in August, with Leebove explaining at the time that Hoffa wanted to avoid his opponent's "negativity."

Despite the union's effort to present itself as having shed its criminal ties, the Teamsters remain under a court-appointed election officer and government controls, which were imposed as a result of a consent decree in 1989.

The union's failure to escape the government's grasp and the collapse in April 2004 of the union's internal cleanup efforts are high on the reformers' list of criticisms of Hoffa's leadership.

Once ballyhooed by Teamsters officials for rooting out corruption, the self-policing program evaporated when its leader quit, saying Teamsters leaders had thwarted his work, especially investigations into ties between organized crime and Chicago locals. Teamsters officials denied his claims.

So, too, the reformers point to Teamsters officials' growing payrolls, which is often the result of multiple salaries. Three of the union's five highest paid officials, according to the dissidents, are Chicago Teamsters.

The highest paid Teamster overall was John Coli, the head of Local 727 and Joint Council 25, according to the TDU, which said he received $329,628 last year in salary alone.

But Leebove said the TDU's long-term practice of tallying officials' wages "is not an issue with our membership." Many of the unions' members, he said, "make in excess of $100,000 a year."

Merger with Smaller Unions

While the reformers fault the union for failing to organize new members and stem its membership losses, Leebove points instead to the Teamsters' ability to merge with three small unions in the last five years.

The smaller unions brought in 130,000 members and another 20,000 workers were newly organized, making up for the union's losses, says Leebove.

A major point raised by Leebove is that Leedham got on the ballot with the votes of only 6 percent of the delegates at the union's June convention in Las Vegas. But Pope said that's not a reliable measure of his support.

"We are much more hopeful this time because there are so many angry members," she said.

Indeed the convention became a test of Pope's grit and the toughness of a woman in a union where women account for about one-fourth of the rank and file. Now she is running for secretary-treasurer.

"It was big boys playing little games," said Katie Brutcher, a Teamsters union member from upstate New York, and Leedham supporter. Hoffa supporters "would set her [Pope] up and try to embarrass her," Brutcher said.

Leebove has no apologies. "This was a Teamsters convention, not a society luncheon," he said. "If you can't take the heat, don't get involved."

As Pope explains, she has had a history of being a woman able to stand on her own in a union stamped with the image of a place for tough guys.

She came from a middle-class family; her mother was born in Panama. Pope had dropped out of college after two years and was working as a ward in a state mental hospital in Massachusetts when she lost her job because of a strike.

During the dispute, she met TDU members and decided to move to Cleveland, where the group began, and signed up as a volunteer.

Soon she found a job as a baggage handler at a Greyhound bus station, but got laid off and applied for a warehouse job, which opened the door to becoming a Teamster.

The man who hired her apparently misread her application, and thought her name was Alexander, not Alexandra, she said. "The guy laughed when I came in. He said, `Well, I guess I'm going to have to hire you anyway.'"

On her own time, she began learning how to drive a truck, and then went to trucking school when the warehouse job evaporated. That led to a job as a driver, which she kept up for about seven years before she began raising a family. She eventually went to the union and got involved in its politics.

For several years she was the executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, an AFL-CIO group that speaks on behalf of female workers.

Moving Up the Union Ladder

She became president of Teamsters Local 805 in New York City two years ago after holding several other positions with the local. Previously, she was an international representative for the union and a business agent with another local.

"All the time I was a dockworker and driver, there were no other women. I was the only one. There were so few of us out there," she said.

It wasn't easy being a woman alone on the road, one reason why she began studying martial arts years ago. The men said she didn't belong on the road.

And if someone would make an especially nasty remark, "I just went right up to him," recalled Pope who stands 5-foot-6. "Sometimes I think I am bigger than I am."

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