Sandy Pope says things you might not expect to hear from a union leader.

The employee free choice act, a bill stalled in Congress that would make it easier to for workers to unionize? The wrong fight at the wrong time, according to Pope. Besides, she said, "I want people to stand up and vote affirmatively for a union."

Endorsing a candidate for president? Not if she had her way, especially since she believes Democrats now take union money for granted. "I think we need to focus on specific legislation that helps all working people instead of backing a party," Pope said.

Make no mistake, though. Pope can invoke union fire and brimstone, especially when talking to fellow members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has been led since 1999 by a man with one of the most famous names in organized labor, James P. Hoffa.

"It's time to say enough is enough," she tells a UPS driver upset about overtime and productivity demands. "This is a good job and they pay you well, but they shouldn't be allowed to kill you."

Pope, who is 54, is the first woman to run for president of the Teamsters. She has spent much of the past year making self-financed campaign forays to union strongholds. She estimates that she's spent about $10,000, saving money by sleeping in the spare bedrooms of Teamster supporters. "I've not had to spend anything on hotels yet," she said proudly.

She began her campaign swing through Minnesota on Monday at 4:30 a.m., greeting union drivers at a Coca-Cola facility in Eagan. An hour later she was buttonholing production workers at a Honeywell plant in Golden Valley. From there she made a quick swing through the Minneapolis Public School's bus garage before planting herself outside the gate at the UPS facility in northeast Minneapolis.

Pope has been a Teamster since 1978 and is currently president of a New York City local. In 2006 she won 36 percent of the vote as a candidate for vice president.

Voting starts next week

This time she's running as an independent against Hoffa and another candidate, Fred Gegare, who has served for 13 years as Hoffa's vice president. Ballots will be mailed to Teamster members next week; votes will be tallied in November.

It is a starkly bitter contest. Hoffa's camp has set up a website that accuses Pope of mismanaging her local's finances, and of using union funds to finance her campaign, charges Pope denies.

But the contest remains largely invisible to most Americans, and for good reason: Only one in nine U.S. workers is a union member, down from one in five in 1980. Exclude teachers, police and other government workers, and union representation shrinks to about one in every 15 private-sector jobs.

Rather than fret about the plight of organized labor, most Americans seem ambivalent if not openly hostile to union concerns, such as pension and job protections for public-sector workers.

Pope sees it as part of a coordinated campaign to weaken unions by exploiting the economic anxiety of nonunion workers.

"You've got four years of college but no job security, no pension and you're paying a higher share of health care costs," she said. "No wonder you're angry at people who have something you don't."

The Teamsters' fortunes have suffered along with the rest of the union movement. It remains under court-appointed oversight, a legacy of its affiliation with organized crime. Membership, at just under 1.4 million, is down a third since the late 1970s. Its Central States Pension Fund is severely underfunded, thanks to investment losses, an aging workforce and the withdrawal of its biggest employer, UPS, from the plan.

If Pope wins the top job, she has pledged to direct more money to local organizing. She also thinks the Teamsters and other unions have an opportunity to make their case to a broader audience.

"We created the middle class," she said. "That's what we're fighting to defend, and that's a message that goes beyond our members." • 612-673-1736