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Oral Interview (March 5, 1996) Real Media | MP3 Transcript (pdf)
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Eileen Sullivan: trucker, activist and union leader

Sullivan's activism began in the women's movement, and her leadership skills blossomed during her years with the Teamsters and TWU. When the TWU illegally removed her from an elected post, she took the matter to federal court and was reinstated. That victory encouraged her to run for localwide office. Elected vice president, she was the first woman to hold a top union office in TWU Local 504.

On October 16, 2006, Eileen Sulllivan spoke at an AUD conference titled Confronting Corruption in Labor Unions.
Listen to Sullivan's talk

Teamster women definitely were not welcome in summer 1978, when Eileen Sullivan showed up for her first day on the job as an apprentice trucker. She had fourteen years' experience as a waitress before she decided to step into a big rig. The mother of five children and wife of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer, she badly needed the job, which gave her a sevenfold increase in salary plus benefits. Her career inside IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Local 282 ended two years later when she was laid off.

She then became a tractor-trailer driver for Pan American Airlines at JFK Airport— the airline's first female trucker. She was a member of Local 504, Air Transport Division, TWU. For 11 years she represented the members in her local, first as an unofficial activist and later as a top leader. She experienced the difficulties of trying to represent the needs of the women, a distinct minority within the total membership. In 1991 Pan Am went into bankruptcy and then out of business, taking thousands of jobs with it.

Sullivan enrolled in Career Connections, a program for displaced workers, and studied at Adelphi University to become a paralegal. She received a scholarship established by tradeswomen's activist Cynthia Long that allowed her to attend Cornell Labor Studies Program for Trade Union Women.

In the next phase of her career she was director of the Women's Project, a new initiative of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), where she was a public advocate for women workers. Sullivan worked with tradeswomen and their organizations in New York City and nationwide.

When Teamster Local 295, the JFK Airport local, was placed under trusteeship after years of mob control, the administrator of the trusteeship offered Sullivan a job as the local's business agent. In turn that experience led to her appointment as trustee of Teamster Local 851, also at JFK Airport.

Finally, she became a top union official in one of New York City's most powerful blue-collar institutions—the 40,000-member Local 100, TWU—the bus and subway workers' union. As director of its Grievance and Discipline unit, she supervised the union representatives, attorneys, and arbitrators hired jointly by the union and management to represent members in cases of disciplinary charges and grievances.

Sullivan's oral history details her involvement in the struggle for female representation within trade unions, her growing self-confidence in her ability to lead, and the challenges of cleaning up mob-ridden unions.

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Copyright 2012
Jane LaTour/Talking History
  Photo of Eileen Sullivan by Gary Schoichet
Audio from the Association for Union Democracy Website 
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