RENEE MONTAGNE, host: The presidency of one of the biggest unions in the country is up for grabs. James Hoffa currently heads the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and he's facing the first challenge by a woman in the Teamsters' 108-year-old history. Sandy Pope is a former truck driver. If she becomes head of the union and its 1.4 million members, her challenge would be to turn around years of declining membership.
NPR's Beenish Ahmed reports.
BEENISH AHMED: Sandy Pope is standing outside of a grocery warehouse in Maryland's Montgomery County. She's greeting Teamsters as they exit the massive compound.
SANDY POPE: Hi, how are you? I'm Sandy Pope. I'm running against Hoffa in the national election.
AHMED: Pope knows her work well because she's done it. She's also worked as a Teamster dock worker, steel hauler and truck driver. Pope has a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do. A woman of average height with shoulder-length blond hair, she certainly doesn't fit the typical trucker image. But with the CB moniker Troublemaker, Pope drove a semi across the country for years. The fact that she's worked in so many traditional Teamster jobs appeals to a lot of members. And it's this experience that Pope has drawn from as she's risen up union ranks.
POPE: It's very important to me to feel that I'm helping people gain dignity in their lives, independence, respect. And unions give you power in your own workplace that as individuals, most of us can't get.
AHMED: Pope isn't a typical Teamster. Her father managed an investment firm. She attended Hampshire College in hopes of becoming a lawyer, but dropped out to work a minimum wage job - much to her family's dismay.
RICHARD HURD: She has her own excess baggage to carry.
AHMED: That's Richard Hurd. He's a professor and associate dean at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
HURD: If Jim Hoffa's baggage is that he got his job because his father was the president, hers is that she's an activist who came into the labor movement to be an activist.
AHMED: James Hoffa is the current president of the Teamsters. His father and namesake was an iconic figure who led the union during its heyday. But a lot has changed since then.
HURD: The reality for the Teamsters was that their hold on the industry began to wither away. It's not unique to the Teamsters .
AHMED: Professor Hurd cites automation, globalization and deregulation as the main culprits behind the declining clout of the Teamsters. The new president will be up against all of them, not to mention a slumping economy and a difficult climate for labor.
Just over half of all Americans approve of unions, according to a recent Gallup poll. The prolonged fall of union approval rates has mirrored a decline in union membership. Only one in 10 Americans are currently in a union - a 70-year low. And Hurd isn't hopeful that things will improve for the Teamsters or any other union any time soon.
HURD: What they can hope for is that they maintain their current strength and gradually expand within the markets that they have, but it's not going to be easy.
AHMED: Sandy Pope is up for the challenge. As she said during a recent campaign debate...
POPE: And once that we start to turn our attention to enforcing our contracts at UPS, in freights, at waste management, in the grocery industry, then those members will be our best organizers out there and we'll be able to build.
AHMED: Pope and another candidate, Fred Gegare, debated their views, but Hoffa sent a representative. He said during an interview later that his record speaks for itself.
JAMES HOFFA: My opposition lives in a parallel universe where they don't know what's going on. We've organized over 130,000 members in the past - just the past three years.
AHMED: But due to layoffs and attrition, the union has lost nearly twice as many members during this time. Election results will be announced in mid-November. Whoever emerges as the next president will have no choice but to make organizing a major priority. And that's one thing both Hoffa and Pope agree on. On October 6th, 1.3 million ballots will be mailed out to Teamsters across the country. If the next leader of the union doesn't act fast, that number will fall before his or her five-year term is up. For NPR News, I'm Beenish Ahmed in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.