Pope got a job at a state psychiatric hospital, working as a “ward attendant” for minimum wage. She knew almost nothing about unions at the time, but then her co-workers went on strike for better wages. They were out for three days, and she stayed on the picket line around the clock. “I never slept,” she says. In the end, the workers won. “I couldn’t believe it,” Pope says. “I saw raw power. People with high-school educations suddenly feeling in control of their lives a little bit. I said, ‘This is what I want to do!’ ”
In 1977, she moved to Cleveland to join a group called Teamsters for a Decent Contract (later renamed Teamsters for a Democratic Union) whose goal was to stamp out corruption in the union. She got a Teamsters job, too, at an A&P supermarket warehouse. And when the warehouse shut down, she enrolled in truck-driving school.
During that time, Ohio’s steel mills were booming. Her next job: hauling steel, which meant being on the road for up to three days at a time, dropping off loads in Baltimore or Chicago, then turning around, picking up another load, and driving back. It was a dirty, dangerous job for anybody, much less a 23-year-old woman with zero experience. A few months later, she got a Teamsters job transporting auto parts for Ford.
She was virtually the only woman on the road. Whenever she wanted to shower at a truck stop, a waitress would have to shoo away the men first. And although most of her fellow drivers accepted her, she says, “every once in a while I’d get a jerk on the radio who’d say, ‘She should be lying on her back—not driving a truck.’ ” There were, however, plenty of times when she bested her male colleagues, hauling her loads faster than they did. Her secret was mapping out the routes ahead of time while they often got lost.
The job could be both boring and terrifying. Once, en route to Youngstown at 3 a.m., she hit black ice and did a 360-degree turn in the middle of the highway. But on nights when the sky was clear and she was chatting on her CB radio, the job held a certain appeal; at least she didn’t have to sit in an office all day. Even today, she says, “I often think it would be nice just to go back on a truck.”
She had been hoping for a turnout of 40 or more, but there seems to be only about half that number at the Rodeway Inn tonight. At the upcoming Teamsters convention, Pope will have to win 5 percent of the delegate votes to get her name on the ballot. That may not sound too tough—only about 88 out of some 1,750 votes—but most delegates are local union officials and unlikely to vote against Hoffa. Occasionally, though, a group of everyday Teamsters tries to win seats at the convention in order to support their candidate. That’s what was happening in Allentown: Many of the Teamsters in this room were running in Local 773’s delegate election, vying for the chance to go to Vegas and vote for Pope.
Her stump speech lasts about 30 minutes and includes the usual jabs at the Teamsters’ leaders (“They have multiple pensions. Their houses are paid for … So what the hell do they care anyway? They could walk away if the union collapses before their eyes”), her view of Hoffa’s salary (“Hoffa is making $360,000 with all his housing allowances … $300,000 is ridiculous”), and the requisite citing of her résumé (“As someone who started out as a warehouse worker and a truck driver, I’m sick of having a lawyer with a big name hijack our union”).
These days, there’s a sense of anger and betrayal among many Teamsters, a feeling that even though they invested heavily in helping Obama get to the White House, they have little to show for their efforts. If elected, Pope plans to get back to basics: stop writing checks to politicians and instead use the money to recruit more new members, target workers at nonunionized competitors, and end what she sees as Hoffa’s autocratic ways.
But, of course, in an era when union-bashing has become a national sport, expanding the membership will be more difficult than ever. And without new, younger members coming in—without their dues money, their energy, their pension contributions—the union is destined to lose its power at the bargaining table and jeopardize the future pension payments of all its members. Which may be why some Teamsters are so eager to take a chance on someone new.