A woman as president of the macho Teamsters Union that was once headed by supermacho Jimmy Hoffa? It could happen.
Sandy Pope thinks so, and she's going to try as hard as she can to make it happen – going to try as hard as she can to succeed Hoffa's lawyer son, Jimmy junior, as head of one of the country's largest and most powerful unions.
If a majority of delegates at the Teamster convention that opened today in Las Vegas vote for Pope to unseat Hoffa, who was first elected a dozen years ago, she'll be only the third woman to ever head an international union.
Randi Weingarten, the highly regarded president of the American Federation of Teachers, who took office in 2008, is one of the others. The third is Mary Kay Henry, who just recently succeeded the controversial Andy Stern as president of the country's largest union, the 1.3 million-member Service Employees International Union, the SEIU.
The Teamsters comes in at number two, with 1.2 million members. Hoffa's supporters argue that Sandy Pope is not up to handling such a huge and diverse union. Her record, however, seems to indicate otherwise.
For 33 years, the 54-year-old Pope has held her own in the union's macho culture, as a driver of big long haul freight trucks and as a warehouse worker. For seven years she's been president of a New York Teamster local of drivers and warehouse workers, one of only 16 of the Teamster's 407 locals nationwide to be headed by a woman.
Before that, Pope was an international union representative in the Teamster's warehouse division. She's been a longtime leader of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which has exposed much of the corruption that's been common in the union since the days of Hoffa senior as president.
The TDU's work has led to some important corrections in union operations, but much remains to be done, and it's unlikely that Hoffa junior would do much about it. As the incumbent, he's running a status quo campaign. Some local level Teamster officials fear retaliation from Hoffa and his allies if they campaign for Pope.
But Pope certainly isn't backing off one bit. She's promising to halt or at least slow the concessions that Teamster negotiators have granted employers in recent years. Under her, she says, the union" will close the concessions stand."
It also would push the union's officers off the gravy train. In one Minnesota Teamsters local closely allied with Hoffa, for instance, the principal officer is paid $200,000 a year. Hoffa himself is paid $363,000. And that's going on at the same time that many rank-and-file Teamsters are taking pay and benefit cuts and otherwise feeling the effects of a declining economy.
It's what the pro-labor magazine "Labor Notes" quite accurately calls "the union leadership's back-scratching, pocket-lining culture."
Generally speaking, Pope's promising to return to the basics of union operations – to build public support, mobilize the union's current members and wage a major organizing drive to recruit new members. Pope also promises that some 20,000 of the union's members whose jobs have been downgraded to part-time can expect a drive to make those jobs full-time.
It's clear that, like many dissident Teamsters, Sandy Pope is "sick of having a lawyer with a big name hijack our union."
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.