The Teamsters union's long and colorful history has included its share of moments that transcend labor-management relations and find their way into cultural lore. The race to elect the union's next general president could become one of those moments.
Consider the candidates, whose intersecting story lines seem straight out of central casting:
About 1,800 delegates are meeting at the Teamsters annual convention in Las Vegas, where today they will nominate candidates to run in the general election. Barring an unexpected turn of events, James P. Hoffa; Alexandra (Sandy) Pope, and Fred Gegare will garner enough votes to qualify for the nomination. The ballots go out in October and will be counted in November. By then, the three nominees will likely be covered with welts from what is destined to be a bare-knuckled affair.
The Pope and Gegare teams have framed the election as a referendum on Hoffa's leadership, charging Hoffa runs the union from the top down and routinely ignores local concerns, and has jettisoned long-time associates in favor of high-priced consultants with little knowledge of labor.
"He doesn't want to listen to anyone who has experience," says Gegare, who in 1999 ran as a vice president on Hoffa's slate during his first successful presidential push. "You don't turn in your old friends for new ones."
Gegare, who among other positions is chairman of the board of trustees at the union's influential Central States pension fund, claims he brings experience and support that Pope lacks, as well as a change from the status quo represented by Hoffa. "When I look at my résumé, I don't see how anyone can beat me," he says.
Pope, who in 2006 was named number two on an opposition slate that was eventually defeated by Hoffa, hopes to gain traction this time by contrasting her years as a field representative and president for the past six years of Local 805 in New York with Hoffa's lack of in-the-trenches experience.
"I've been in the thick of it for quite a while, and I feel Hoffa has been above it all, always," she says. "He was never a shop steward or a local officer, and he has totally removed himself."
The Hoffa camp, which is blanketing the Internet with campaign ads (a website for hiking trails in Georgia shows a campaign ad with Hoffa's name adorning the side of a 53-foot trailer), argues its candidate brings unmatched qualifications from his background as a labor lawyer, the knowledge base gained from growing up in a prominent union family, and his 12 years' experience as Teamster president. They dismiss Pope's candidacy as a pipe dream fueled by little more than human interest. They claim that she has virtually no funds to conduct a serious campaign and that she is unqualified to run the Teamsters after mismanaging her local's finances to the point of near-insolvency.
Hoffa's supporters acknowledge Gegare's level of experience but say his vitriolic comments about Hoffa ring hollow given that he supported the general president on almost every issue before breaking away from him.
"Gegare never spoke out against anything," says Richard Leebove, a senior adviser to the Hoffa campaign. The campaign did not make Hoffa available for an interview.
The Hoffa campaign points to such successes as his role in keeping less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier YRC Worldwide Inc. afloat—and preserving 25,000 to 30,000 Teamster jobs—as the company teetered on the abyss through 2009. The campaign also touts the organizing of 10,000 to 12,000 members of UPS Freight, which was known as Overnite Transportation prior to UPS's 2005 acquisition of Overnite.
Gegare and Pope argue that UPS Freight was not organized as part of the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), which covers unionized LTL carriers, and that its union members' wages started as much as $11 an hour below NMFA carriers like YRC and ABF Freight System Inc. Leebove declined comment on the specifics of any wage gap, but says he doesn't believe the UPS Freight wages were "significantly different" from its rivals'. Leebove adds that UPS Freight workers will receive wage increases in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The campaign will play out against the fading relevance of Teamster labor in the transportation industry. While overall Teamster membership has dropped from 2 million to 1.4 million, the freight division's rolls have plummeted from about 500,000 in the late 1970s to about 50,000 to 60,000 today. The division, once considered the union's core, has been weakened by hundreds of bankruptcies among unionized carriers and the growing reliance on non-union labor. About half of the division's members work at YRC, a company that remains financially fragile.
The candidates have all vowed to re-energize the freight division. However, they have so far pledged to do little more than step up organizing efforts at non-union carriers like FedEx Corp.'s ground parcel and LTL divisions, a strategy that has gone nowhere in the past. There is talk about organizing the thousands of owner-operator independent drivers operating around the country, especially at the nation's ports, where they have strong drayage operations. However, with no large employer to focus on, such organizing efforts would be fragmented and perhaps futile.
Pope says she would examine the expanding relationship between UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, under which UPS turns over shipments to the post office for deliveries to mostly remote destinations. The agreement, made possible by the requirement that USPS serve every U.S. address, allows UPS to reach more customers without the expense of dispatching its own drivers. However, Pope says the compact violates the Teamster contract and threatens traditional Teamster jobs in regions of the country already hard-hit by the recession.
Ace in the 'Hall'
Unlike Hoffa and Gegare, who are running with a slate of candidates, Pope is going it alone. She has no slate of officers, and relies on a staff that, as recently as May, consisted of two part-timers and staff time donated by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a dissident group that supports her candidacy. Pope says she has a large grass-roots volunteer network and holds conference calls at nights and on weekends with Teamster members nationwide. She says that she will rely on social networking tools to build critical mass.
In 1991, TDU backed the candidacy of the late Ron Carey, who was elected president in a stunning upset. While Pope and TDU hope lightning can strike twice, Leebove of the Hoffa camp says the comparisons between the two eras don't stand up to scrutiny.
For one, Carey ran against a splintered field after the incumbent at the time, William McCarthy, declined to seek another term. By contrast, Pope is facing a two-time incumbent in Hoffa, Leebove says.
In addition, Carey, as a long-time UPS employee, built on a groundswell of support among the company's rank and file, Leebove says. Pope doesn't have that embedded base, Leebove claims. Carey also had about 12,000 members in his local—Local 804 in New York—while Pope has slightly more than 1,000 members in hers, he adds.
"Ron Carey was by far a more significant player than Sandy Pope," Leebove says.
In a nod to the importance of nearly 250,000 unionized UPS workers, Hoffa has named as his running mate Ken Hall, who for years was director of the Teamsters' small parcel division and was one of the architects of a 1997 job action that shut down UPS for 15 days.
Leebove says Hall is "regarded as a hero" by workers at UPS and throughout the union for standing up to the Atlanta-based giant and still wields considerable influence. The choice of Hall is "a major game changer," he says.
Ken Paff, TDU's national organizer, agrees that Hall's connection with UPS Teamsters was a key factor in his selection as Hoffa's number two. However, Paff says the Hoffa campaign may be misreading the rank and file's likely reception of Hall, contending the most recent UPS contact, negotiated in 2007, was "not that popular" with members.
A full agenda
The winner of the November election takes the chair in January 2012 and almost immediately will need to gear up for events in 2013 that could chart the union's course for years to come: negotiating new contracts for workers at UPS's small-package operations, at UPS's LTL division, and at YRC. The three contracts combined will affect about 275,000 members, equal to nearly 20 percent of Teamster membership.
"UPS and the NMFA are the heart of the union, and it's what everybody will be watching," Pope says.
One person who will certainly be watching is Scott Davis, UPS's chairman and CEO, who will oversee the upcoming 2013 contract negotiations. In light of UPS's tradition of limiting its chairmen to negotiating only one Teamster contract during their tenure, this will be Davis's one shot.
Davis, for his part, seems happy with the way things are. "The relationship with the Teamsters is better than it's ever been before," he told an analyst group in June.