Alexandra “Sandy” Pope steps out of her apartment in Astoria wearing a jacket with the Teamsters logo, hood pulled up against the rain, strands of blonde hair poking out the sides. She drops her luggage in the back of her Ford Focus and slides into the driver’s seat. The rain picks up as she heads west, pelting her car with such ferocity that it’s impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. But Pope isn’t fazed. What’s an afternoon storm when you’ve done overnight truck runs in blizzard conditions, hauling steel from Cleveland to Baltimore?
Pope no longer drives a tractor-trailer, but she still spends much of her time on the road. Last fall, she announced her candidacy for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and on a Sunday afternoon in March, she’s headed to yet another campaign stop, this time in Allentown, Pennsylvania, at a hotel bar, on a street called Bulldog Drive. In this race, she’s got some obvious disadvantages: Winning will require dethroning the man with the most famous name in organized labor—James P. Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa’s 69-year-old son.
The Teamsters will nominate presidential candidates this summer at the union’s convention in Las Vegas; the election will be this fall. But already the race is in full swing, with every week offering Pope yet another example of how tough it is to mount a national campaign when your opponent has way more money—and you have to drive yourself to every event. “It’s like running for City Council and going to coffee klatches,” Pope says, one hand on the stick shift. “But it’s across North America.”
This race is taking place amid one of the worst climates for labor in decades. Union membership is at its lowest point in 70 years, Republican leaders in states like Wisconsin and Ohio have launched a war on public employees’ right to collective bargaining, and everywhere public pensions are under attack. As Pope put it in a recent speech, “We’re getting the shit beaten out of us.”
The Teamsters was once America’s biggest and most fearsome union, with some 2 million members. Today it is down to 1.4 million, though it represents everyone from airline pilots to New York City sanitation workers. Pope presides over a small local in Queens, and five years ago, she ran in the national election for the union’s No. 2 position. She lost but received more votes than anyone else on her anti-Hoffa slate.
Until recently, Pope was living in Montclair, New Jersey, and raising two kids. These days, the kids are grown and she’s divorced, renting a second-floor walk-up near Astoria Park. The abbreviated version of her bio suggests a tough, glamorous Norma Rae: age 54 (but passes for 40), 33 years in the Teamsters, black belt in Tae Kwon Do. And her entrance in Allentown is suitably cinematic. She arrives in the fog, peering through the windshield for the Rodeway Inn sign, only to discover a billboard bearing her name propped in the bed of a pickup truck.
Inside the hotel’s bar, past the neon Bud sign and the flat-screen showing The Simpsons, some two dozen Teamsters from Local 773 sit at small tables adorned with fake flowers. The men—and almost everybody here is a man—drink beer while they wait. Shortly after 6 p.m., Pope walks in, sporting her Teamsters jacket, fashionably faded jeans, and brown leather boots. The men stop talking, their heads pivoting toward the door.
There was a time when you couldn’t find too many stories about Teamsters leaders without words like “indictment” or “prison” in the headline. The best-known leader, of course, was James R. Hoffa, who managed to hold on to his title of union president even after he entered federal prison in 1967. (His crimes: jury tampering, fraud, conspiracy.) Three and a half years after his release, on a summer day in 1975, he famously disappeared from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant outside Detroit.
Back then, Sandy Pope was a college student. She grew up in Milton, a suburb of Boston, with four older brothers, the sixth in a family of seven children. (Her father, a New England native, was a manager at an investment firm; her mother was an immigrant from Panama.) “She was the one that my brothers always wanted on their side of the football game, because Sandy was tough, very tough,” says her sister Victoria Pope, now the deputy editor of National Geographic. Pope finished high school in three years and went to Hampshire College at 17. Her plan was to become a lawyer, but then, during her junior year, she quit college altogether. As Victoria recalls, “My mother was incredibly upset.”