Skip to content Skip to footer

Redefining the Union Boss

Not long ago, truckers pulled off highways across America and tuned in to someone whose CB handle was “Troublemaker.” “I’m barely hanging on,” one driver lamented. His employer, the U.P.S. freight unit, was turning to nonunion drivers — people outside the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, he said. “We need to start enforcing our contracts!” Troublemaker replied. Troublemaker, better known as Sandy Pope, is the first woman to run for the presidency of the Teamsters, against the powerful, three-term incumbent, James P. Hoffa. Yes, Hoffa.

Not long ago, truckers pulled off highways across America and tuned in to someone whose CB handle was “Troublemaker.”

“I’m barely hanging on,” one driver lamented. His employer, the U.P.S. freight unit, was turning to nonunion drivers — people outside the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, he said.

“We need to start enforcing our contracts!” Troublemaker replied.

Troublemaker, better known as Sandy Pope, is the first woman to run for the presidency of the Teamsters, against the powerful, three-term incumbent, James P. Hoffa.

Yes, Hoffa.

Odds are that Ms. Pope will lose — final results are due today. But whatever the outcome, Ms. Pope represents a new face of labor, one that increasingly is female. In this “We are the 99 percent” moment, when corporate profits are up and wages flat, a handful of women are challenging the old, mostly male world of union bosses.

Unions, of course, have been in retreat for years. But Ms. Pope and several other women, notably Rose Ann DeMoro, of National Nurses United, and Mary Kay Henry, of the Service Employees International Union, are pushing back. Their ascendance has rekindled hope that organized labor maybe, just maybe, could stage a comeback. They have also helped inspire the likes of Occupy Wall Street.

Fight corporate influence by keeping independent media strong! Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout.

“Some of these women might even make unions relevant to the average American again,” said Steve Early, a labor journalist, union organizer and author of “The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.”

That, anyway, is labor’s hope. All three women are pushing the old boundaries, and some are engaging traditional foes like anti-union managers and Republicans in Washington and beyond.

From Big Rig to Bargaining

Ms. Pope is an unlikely firebrand. Her father was an investment banker, and she grew up in comfortable surroundings in a Boston suburb. But then she dropped out of Hampshire College and ended up working for minimum wage as an attendant at a psychiatric hospital. When co-workers groused about wages, she organized a strike — and won.

“I saw how empowered people felt when they had control over their lives,” she recalled.

Ms. Pope later found a better-paying job at a warehouse in Cleveland, as a member of the Teamsters. In 1979, when Teamster steel haulers in Canton, Ohio, went on strike, she helped expand that action throughout the Midwest. Before long, she was driving an 18-wheeler, hauling steel from Cleveland to Baltimore. After the birth of her first child, however, she traded her rig for the bargaining table, and began negotiating local contracts. When Ron Carey, a parcel truck driver from Queens, ran on an anticorruption platform and captured the presidency of the Teamsters, a union that had been long notorious for Mafia connections, Ms. Pope became an international representative for the union’s warehouse unit. By then, she had settled in Montclair, N.J.

Seven years later, Mr. Carey left after he was accused of misusing union funds. (A court later found him not guilty.) Ms. Pope then joined Teamsters Local 805 in Queens. There, she ran against its incumbent president and won, becoming the head of the 1,100-member local in 2005.

When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York tried to convert shipping piers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, into luxury residences and tourist attractions, Ms. Pope called on other unions, neighborhood groups and local leaders to try to block the move. At stake, she said, were hundreds of midwage, non-Teamster jobs. After three years, New York City abandoned the plan.

“We’re small, but we fight big,” she said.

Today, Ms. Pope, still president of Local 805, is worried about the future of freight truckers, once the source of the Teamsters’ power. Much of her ire is directed at U.P.S. When the stock market tumbled in 2008, the workers’ pension funds became underfunded. On top of that, truckers say, they must now work faster and harder just to keep standing still in terms of wages and benefits.

“Workers are getting killed on productivity standards, and they’re terrified to speak out,” Ms. Pope said.

She worries that her grown daughter can’t afford health care, and that her college-age son may not find a full-time job with benefits. “We’re supposed to leave our kids a better world than the one we’ve been born into, but so far we haven’t,” she said.

If she somehow manages to win the national election, she said, she will fight for all working people. And if she loses? “I’ll keep doing the same.”

Confronting Schwarzenegger

When Rose Ann DeMoro speaks, her voice sounds like a burbling faucet. Ms. DeMoro, 61, is executive director of National Nurses United, a 170,000-member union that she runs with dramatic flair.

Born in St. Louis, Ms. DeMoro married her high-school sweetheart, moved to California and raised two children. She left college to organize supermarket cashiers and was the first female organizer for the Western Conference of Teamsters. In 1986, she was offered a collective bargaining position at the California Nurses Association — though she had never been a nurse.

At the time, California had fewer registered nurses per patient than most any other state. Night-shift nurses in some hospitals cared for as many as 12 patients at a time, and some bedridden patients would actually dial “911” to seek help. In 2004, California passed a law requiring hospitals to have at least one nurse for every five patients. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor, delayed implementing part of that law, and at a conference nurses unfurled a protest banner during his speech. The governor told the crowd to pay no attention to special interests.

“I am always kicking their butts,” he said.

Ms. DeMoro pounced. She said the governor’s comment was “an affront to women everywhere.” Her union hounded the governor, going so far as to throw a New Orleans-style funeral in Sacramento for the concept of patient care.

After much back-and-forth, the law went into effect.

Greg Roth, a former manager in the California Department of Health Services, dealt with Ms. DeMoro during some contentious legislative hearings. He said she “is effective, but I didn’t feel as if the union showed appropriate respect for the process or for the rights of other people to be heard.”

In more recent years, Ms. DeMoro has helped organize local unions in Texas, Florida and elsewhere, joining forces with other nurse unions to create the national group.

“Rose Ann is not small fry,” said Mark Brenner, editor of Labor Notes, a nonprofit project that promotes unions through its magazine and Web site. “The nurses are more in sync with people than most any other group.”

Among other things, Ms. DeMoro has started a movement called “Heal America, Tax Wall Street.” Her union wants a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades and credit swaps, similar to those levied in 15 other countries. Such a tax might raise as much as $350 billion a year for health, education and jobs programs.

Critics are vocal, saying such a tax would discourage trading profits, but Ms. DeMoro dismisses them. “We pay sales taxes every day, and so should Wall Street,” she said.

To drive home that point, she and 1,000 red-shirted R.N.’s streamed onto Wall Street on June 22 to promote the tax and to protest what they saw as corporate welfare. Two months later, thousands of nurses visited 60 Congressional offices in 21 states, urging support for the Wall Street tax. The nurses also drew media attention by staging a mock news conference with a 10-foot tall puppet that looked a lot like Representative Michele Bachmann, the presidential candidate, and chasing adult-size chipmunks who lugged big acorns to their Wall Street “nests.”

The nurses’ approach has inspired Occupy Wall Street. “The nurses certainly set an example for us,” said Andy Pollack, a committee member of that group in Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street protesters have marched with other unions, “but the nurses go beyond their own contract issues and try to tackle the root of the problem,” he said.

Ms. DeMoro also recently led nurses from four continents to a Group of 20 meeting in Cannes, France, to lobby for a financial transactions tax in other nations as well.

Wooing the Politicians

Mary Kay Henry, the first woman to lead the two-million-member S.E.I.U., speaks in the measured tones of a diplomat — a tone she adopted early on.

She grew up in a suburb of Detroit, the eldest daughter in a family of 10. She studied labor relations at Michigan State University and joined the union as a researcher out of college. While rising to the top, she coordinated nursing strikes in Kaiser Permanente hospitals in San Francisco and helped R.N.’s in Seattle negotiate with their employers.

In 1995, after the union’s president, John Sweeney, resigned to lead the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Ms. Henry was elected to the S.E.I.U.’s executive board. Mr. Sweeney’s successor, Andrew Stern, named her as his assistant in organizing.

Mr. Stern’s tenure was not without controversy. Some critics, like Mr. Early, the labor historian, say he did not do enough to look after workers. (Mr. Stern has repeatedly said he has always tried to put workers first.)

In 2005, he led several unions and six million workers out of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., explaining that the old federation had become complacent. He then had a dispute with Unite Here, an organization for hotel, restaurant and garment workers that had split into two factions, as well as with another union.

“It got ugly, and Mary Kay was part of that episode,” said Mr. Brenner, the Labor Notes editor, and another Stern critic. At one union meeting in Walnut Creek, Calif., Ms. Henry called police to try and eject a dissident union member, but the officers left without doing so, Mr. Early wrote in “The Civil Wars.”

Ms. Henry was loyal to Mr. Stern, whose successes included increasing the S.E.I.U.’s membership by 1.2 million, and helping to elevate workers, from janitors to home health workers, into decent-paying jobs. He became a political force by helping to funnel $70 million into Democratic campaigns during 2008. When he retired 18 months ago, he backed a top lieutenant, Anna Burger, to succeed him.

But S.E.I.U. members had apparently grown weary of the union’s approach. After Ms. Henry stepped forward, Ms. Burger withdrew. In 2010, Ms. Henry was elected president, and vowed to “heal” the S.E.I.U.

And now? “We’re on fire,” she said. She is spending to help locals organize workers in banks, grocery stores and biotech companies and to reach independent contractors.

“We’re concentrating on helping those who have no voice at work,” Ms. Henry said. And she is courting politicians — and not only Democrats, labor’s traditional allies. “We want the G.O.P. members of Congress to focus on ways out of the economic recession,” she said. “So many Republicans leaders are cutting expenses by cutting social services, and that hurts all workers.” About 30 percent of S.E.I.U. members vote Republican, and an additional 20 percent are independent.

In California, the S.E.I.U. has honed its strategy to an art. It recently started a political action committee aimed at helping to elect moderate Republicans in G.O.P. strongholds there next year — evidence, if more were needed, that unions like the S.E.I.U. will play a role in the 2012 elections.

Briefly, we wanted to update you on where Truthout stands this month.

To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.

To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.

We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.

Our fundraising campaign ends tonight at midnight, and we still must raise $14,000. Please consider making a donation before time runs out.