Sandy Pope, vying to be the first woman to run the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in its 108-year history, said she could rebuild the union's languishing freight division by organizing subcontractors at trucking companies, including the thousands of independent owner-operators.
In an interview with DC Velocity, Pope, 54, said the Teamsters have in the past succeeded in organizing large blocs of independent drivers. "When I was at Local 407 [in Cleveland], we had hundreds of owner-operators under contract," she said.
Pope said the independent drivers who operate at the nation's ports would be fertile ground for organizing. "These guys make no money, and they experience difficult working conditions," she said. Faced with skyrocketing fuel prices, rising insurance premiums, and costly compliance requirements, many independent drivers are running their rigs just to pay the bills, she said.
The union's freight division, which peaked at about 400,000 members in the 1970s and was long considered the core of the organization, has dwindled to between 60,000 and 70,000 as bankruptcies and mergers in the post-trucking deregulation world decimated the ranks of truckers.
Pope, who spent seven years as a Teamster truck driver, understands the freight division's woes all too well. "I watched my local go from 8,000 members to 4,000 members in a blink of an eye" in the post-deregulation period, she said.
Push for full-time employment
Pope said that as general president, she would also look to reverse the trend toward greater use of part-time freight workers and subcontractors, especially at UPS Inc. and its UPS Freight less-than-truckload (LTL) division. With about 238,000 unionized workers, Atlanta-based UPS is the world's largest employer of Teamster members, employing slightly less than 20 percent of the union's 1.4 million membership.
"What UPS is doing with UPS Freight is making them look like UPS, with unlimited part-time workers," Pope said in the interview. "It undermines the freight division."
Pope said Teamster rank-and-file members at UPS Freight are also upset about being excluded from the Teamsters defined-benefit pension plans, where participants are guaranteed a specific payout upon retirement. Instead, company employees participate in a 401(k) "defined-contribution" plan, whose value is subject to market fluctuations and whose payout is not contractually guaranteed.
The UPS Freight contract is separate from the much-larger labor compact that covers the transport/logistics giant's small-package operations. Both contracts are up for renewal in 2013, along with the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) that governs workers and companies in the trucking industry. UPS Freight is not covered by the NMFA.
Pope, who for the past six years has run Teamster Local 805 in New York, said that if elected, much of her time next year would be devoted to gearing up for the national contract negotiations. "UPS and the [NMFA] are the heart of the union, and it's what everybody will be watching," she said.
A threat to Teamster jobs
In what could be a major bone of contention leading up to the next contract negotiations with UPS, Pope said she would focus closely on an arrangement between the company and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), under which UPS turns over shipments to the post office for "last mile" deliveries to relatively remote destinations where UPS lacks the package density to send out is own drivers.
Pope said the agreement is a "violation of our contract, but [UPS] continues to do it."
By law, the post office must serve every U.S. address, and UPS and arch-rival FedEx Corp. have leveraged the USPS network with great success. However, Pope said the agreement with UPS (FedEx's parcel drivers are non-union) is leading to a loss of traditional Teamster jobs.
"Our people in the rural areas are terrified," she said. "If you work in North Carolina for UPS and you see your route getting smaller because of this, and if you look at job options in North Carolina, you are not feeling very good."
Asked about the prospects of another large Teamster employer, YRC Worldwide Inc., Pope said she believes the LTL hauler, which employs 25,000 Teamsters and which is in the financial fight of its life, will ultimately survive. "They've gotten this far," she said, adding, though, that the LTL carrier's prospects are "dicey."
Pope added that she has many supporters among the YRC rank and file and that she "doesn't plan to let them down" if elected president.
Going head to head with Hoffa
Pope is running against incumbent James P. Hoffa, who has been president since 1999, and Fred Gagare, a former Hoffa supporter from Wisconsin. About 1,800 Teamster delegates will convene in Las Vegas from June 27 to July 1 to select the presidential candidate slates, among other business.
Pope said she needs the votes of 85 delegates to be on the ballot. Ballots will be distributed in October and counted in November. If elected, Pope would take office in January 2012.
Pope's candidacy is being championed by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a Teamster dissident group that pushes for union reforms and with whom Pope has been affiliated since TDU's founding in 1978. She was also number two on an opposition slate in 2006 headed by Tom Leedham, who was eventually defeated by Hoffa.
Pope said her "tiny" campaign staff consists of two part-time staffers and some staff time donated by TDU. She claims a large grass-roots volunteer network and said she holds conference calls at nights and on weekends with Teamster members across the nation.
Pope has spent months hammering away at the differences between her background and Hoffa's, and she reiterated the point during the interview.
"I came up through the ranks. I've been a local officer for the past 12 years and before that I was an international representative. ... I've been in the thick of it for quite a while, and I feel that Hoffa has been above it all, always. He was never a shop steward or a local officer, and he has totally removed himself. He spends most of his time staying in touch with politicians. And looking to Congress right now is no help at all."