LAS VEGAS -- Longtime Teamsters president James Hoffa, one of the most influential players in American labor, is facing a re-election fight from a former truck driver vying to become the first female leader in the union's 108-year history.
Sandy Pope, a longtime steel hauler who heads a small New York City local, claims her groundbreaking candidacy is a nonissue. She prefers to spotlight the many troubles hounding the union, which, like its counterparts, has been struggling against attacks from hostile politicians, unsympathetic employers, reluctant workers and a tepid economy.
But there's no question that Pope's gender has fueled her longshot campaign. Fewer than one in six Teamsters are women, and for many of her supporters, Pope's bid is a walking symbol of the union's potential to transform itself at a time when American workers are fleeing organized labor.
"I'm not doing this because I'm some big ego," said Pope, 54. "Are you kidding? Who wants to go through this? I am doing this because the membership wants this. ... They want to see that there is something really different happening."
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has grown its assets by $96 million to $197 million since 2001, even as its membership has dwindled by more than 75,000 dues-paying members.
Hoffa's influence was evident this week in Las Vegas, where 1,700 delegates representing the union's 1.3 million members gathered to nominate general candidates for its November election.
Candidates need some 80 votes to land on the ballot, and it was unclear whether Pope would make it. The results are to be announced Friday morning.
"If we weren't successful, we wouldn't be popular," Hoffa, 70, told The Associated Press. "I mean, is there something else we should be doing? We are doing a thousand things at once."
Hoffa's other rival, Fred Gegare, is an executive board member and leader of a Teamsters local in Wisconsin.
The Teamsters election comes at a critical time.
Anti-union efforts in recent months targeting public employees in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Massachusetts have illuminated organized labor's growing vulnerability. Overall union membership in the United States has dropped to 14.7 million, below 1983 levels, and 2010 saw 11 major strikes. Only 2009 has had a smaller number -- five -- since federal officials began collecting data in 1947.
The Teamsters were the most formidable union in the nation under the rule of Hoffa's father in the 1960s before he was convicted of fraud and bribery. The union still represents workers from a cross section of the nation's staid corporations, including US Airways Group Inc., Coca-Cola Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and MGM Resorts International. It's also the only union in the nation under federal supervision, the result of a racketeering lawsuit that was settled in 1989.
For some Teamsters, a rare source of solace is the legendary moniker driving their future.
"I'm comfortable with the Hoffa name and what that means," said Lauren Holley-Allen, a public emergency response worker in Maryland. "People say, `Oh, Hoffa.' They know what they are dealing with."
But critics claim Hoffa, who took office in 1999 and was easily re-elected in 2006, has not held corporate leaders or union-funded politicians accountable.
Hoffa announced a deal this week to allow UPS Freight clerical workers to organize. The agreement follows a 2006 announcement that allowed the company's freight drivers to take a vote to unionize. The organizing saw more than 12,000 new members join the Teamsters in subsequent years.
Opponents, however, said the deal merely sought to swell the union's ranks without securing traditional benefits for the new members. Under the deal, UPS withdrew from a multiemployer pension plan for 42,000 Teamsters members and shifted its workers to a new plan run by the company and the union.
"He sold the members out," said Gegare, 59, a former Hoffa supporter who insists the union's future depends on challenging big companies, especially Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Bill Zimmerman, a Pope supporter and a 60-year-old Nabisco factory worker in Portland, Ore., said union leaders need to allow some workers to participate in every contract negotiation. He complained that Hoffa prefers to keep low-ranking members in the dark about negotiations.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," he said at the convention, where members mostly cheered Hoffa's accomplishments. "If you pull the curtain back, all is not well with the Teamsters. Every rosy thing that's going on, you have to ask, `What cost did that come at?"'
Pope said Hoffa is an elitist whose $368,000 salary and white-collar background as a labor lawyer render him an ineffectual voice for the union's mostly blue-collar transportation and factory workers. She'll rebuild the union, she said, by empowering those members to vote for union-friendly candidates and negotiate their own contracts.
Pope, however, has struggled to protect the local union she oversees from the shifting economy. Her Queens local has lost roughly $2.3 million in assets since 2001 and 14 percent of its members since 2004. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, meanwhile, has seen its membership decline by only 5 percent since 2001.
Pope said Hoffa's top-heavy leadership is to blame for locals' inability to better organize themselves against international corporations.
Hoffa said he's used his clout to generate interest in the plight of the working class, appearing briefly in recent months at rallies in Missouri, New Hampshire and Wisconsin to encourage the faithful.
"It becomes more important when I show up," he said of his ability to attract media coverage. "When I speak up, there are articles about fighting back."
He said publicly rebuking President Barack Obama or other Democratic leaders for not doing more to champion the rights of low-income workers would only benefit anti-union Republican candidates.
"They never do enough for us," he said of Democratic leaders. "What's the alternative? All these people are crazy, this tea party mentality to blame the workers."
Hoffa said aggressively negotiating new benefits is also unrealistic when workers fear unemployment and won't strike. His team has instead resigned itself to fending off further erosion and persuading members that public rallies are the best way to help their cause.
"I always say being in the union is like staying on a treadmill," Hoffa said. "To stay in the same place, you have to keep moving."