Hoffa, James Riddle

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Hoffa, James Riddle

One of the most powerful labor leaders in U.S. history, James Riddle Hoffa ruled with brawn and charisma for 14 years as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America. From 1957 to 1971, Hoffa bound the loose-knit Teamsters into a cohesive organization that won higher wages and tremendous bargaining power for its members. Loved by his union rank and file, he was thought ruthless, cunning, and corrupt by his enemies, among them law enforcement leaders such as robert f. kennedy. Federal investigators pursued Hoffa for several years because of his reputed ties to Organized Crime. He dodged conviction until being found guilty in 1964 on unrelated charges of jury tampering and malfeasance in a real estate deal. He began serving a 13-year prison sentence in 1967, which President richard m. nixon commuted in late 1971. In 1975, Hoffa disappeared mysteriously.

Hoffa rose from obscure origins to stand in the national spotlight. He was born February 14, 1913, in Brazil, Indiana, where his family lived by modest means. His father, a coal driller, died of an occupational respiratory disease when Hoffa was seven. The second of four children, Hoffa, an athletic, shy B-student, quit school after the ninth grade to work full-time as a stock boy in a department store.

In 1930, while still a teenager, Hoffa became a freight handler in a warehouse of the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company in Clinton, Indiana. Here came a turning point in his life, brought on by what he called a need for self-preservation in the face of meager pay and poor working conditions. The young man soon led the other warehousemen in a successful strike that would become a part of the Hoffa legend: by refusing to unload a shipment of perishable strawberries, they forced the company to accede to their demands. With his prowess as an organizer quickly recognized, Hoffa left the warehouse in 1932 to become a full-time Teamster organizer in Detroit, Michigan. The four coworkers who had helped him carry off the strike at Kroger left with him and remained on his staff throughout his career.

Hoffa found his new work difficult in the beginning. During the 1930s, opposition to labor organizers was fierce and often violent. Clashes with management strikebreakers and police officers would turn bloody—Hoffa himself was beaten up 24 times, by his count, during his first year alone. Describing this "war" in his 1970 autobiography, The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa, he recalled, "Managements didn't want us around … and the police, recognizing who the big taxpayers were and responding to orders of politicians who knew quite well where the big contributions came from, seemed not only willing but anxious to shove us around." Tenacity, bullish strength, and a persuasive personal style were traits that helped him not only survive opposition but win new recruits to his side.

In the Depression era, the Teamsters were loosely organized in isolated areas. In 1937, Hoffa joined forces with the Trotskyite leader of the Minneapolis local Teamsters, Farrel Dobbs, a socialist who was successfully unionizing drivers in the Midwest. Hoffa helped Dobbs organize long-haul highway truck drivers under the Central States Drivers Council. However, Hoffa was never above using strong-arm tactics, and later, when it served him, he would help the federal government suppress the Trotskyites.

Whether with management or with rival unions, Hoffa's policy was toughness. By 1941, he was making his first contacts with organized crime figures, as his biographer, Arthur A. Sloane, documented: that year, he enlisted the help of Detroit mobsters—the so-called East Side Crowd—to drive a rival union out of town. Thereafter, dealings with mobsters became regular. Never admitting any illegality, Hoffa nonetheless did not hide these connections. In later years, he claimed, "I'm no different than the banks, no different than the insurance companies, no different than the politicians."

"In the old days all you needed was a handshake. Nowadays you need forty lawyers."
—Jimmy Hoffa

Hoffa ascended to power during the 1940s. He became vice president of the Central States Drivers Council, then president of the Michigan Conference of Teamsters, later an examiner of the Teamster's books, and eventually president of the Teamsters Joint Council 43 in Detroit. In 1952, he was elected an International Teamsters vice president. By 1953, as president of the Central Conference of Teamsters, he was the chief negotiator for truck drivers in 20 states. Over the next decade, Hoffa set about centralizing the Teamsters. As his power grew, local union leaders were encouraged to call Hoffa for authorization to hold strikes. The national bargaining unit that he created amassed such clout that it forged the trucking industry's first national contract in January 1964.

Although his gains were resisted by industry leaders, Hoffa won a reputation for being faithful to contracts. Within the Teamsters, the rank and file respected the gains he won for them and regarded him with open affection. At rallies and in interviews, he employed a speaking style more polished than his ninth-grade education might have suggested, gravelly yet authoritative. Frequently referring to himself in the third person, he would often boast, "Hoffa can take care of Hoffa."

But Hoffa was also running into trouble. Prompted by allegations of labor Racketeering, the U.S. Senate began investigating several unions in January 1957. Nationally televised hearings were conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field—popularly known as the McClellan Committee, after its presiding officer, Senator John Little McClellan. Over two years, the committee uncovered widespread corruption in the Teamsters. Teamster president Dave Beck resigned; he was later convicted of Larceny, Embezzlement, and income Tax Evasion. Hoffa, succeeding Beck as president, faced months of intense questioning by Senator john f. kennedy and the committee's chief counsel, Robert Kennedy.

The committee alleged that Hoffa had used union funds for his own profit, accepted payoffs from trucking companies, and associated with convicted labor racketeer John Dioguardi. Pressed by the Kennedys during hearings that had an air of open animosity, Hoffa admitted nothing. Just before one of his scheduled appearances, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents arrested him on charges of trying to bribe a lawyer to leak confidential committee memos to him. Robert Kennedy announced he would jump off the dome of the Capitol building if the union leader was not convicted. When Hoffa was acquitted after a four-month trial, his attorney offered to send Kennedy a parachute.

The McClellan Committee report condemned Hoffa and the Teamsters. One result was the passage of more stringent legislation concerning unions; another was the expulsion of the Teamsters from the american federation of labor and congress of industrial organizations (AFL-CIO). For Hoffa, the hearings marked the beginning of a feud between himself and Robert Kennedy that would deepen upon the latter's appointment in 1960 as attorney general. Kennedy devoted considerable resources within the U.S. Justice Department to prosecuting Hoffa, whom he described as heading a conspiracy of evil. Despite several indictments, Hoffa escaped conviction until 1964. First, he was convicted of jury tampering and sentenced to eight years in prison. The manner in which the conviction was obtained later brought a rebuke from U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren: the U.S. Justice Department used a jailed Teamster member to trap Hoffa. At a second 1964 trial, Hoffa received an additional five years for Fraud and conspiracy in the handling of a Teamster benefit fund.

In March 1967, with his appeals exhausted, Hoffa began serving his 13-year sentence in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, in Pennsylvania. Hoffa refused to relinquish control of the Teamsters. He was denied Parole three times. Then, in December 1971, President Nixon commuted his sentence on the condition that he refrain from union activities until the year 1980. His attorneys worked to reverse the limitation, while he campaigned on behalf of prison reform. But he never regained power.

In 1975, Hoffa drove to a suburban Detroit restaurant to meet reputed crime figure Anthony ("Tony Pro") Provenzano. Hoffa's car was found later, but he was never seen again. For several years, the FBI maintained an open file on Hoffa, yet it never solved the mystery. Theories about his disappearance abound, including the belief that Hoffa was buried underneath the goalposts at the Meadowlands football stadium, in New Jersey. In the 1980s, Hoffa's daughter Barbara Ann Crancer, an associate circuit court judge in Missouri, filed a lawsuit to force the FBI to release the records of its investigation of Hoffa's death. She was unsuccessful in her efforts. In 1989, the retiring FBI chief in Detroit, Kenneth P. Walton, told the press that he knew the identity of Hoffa's killer. But Walton said the case would never be prosecuted because doing so would compromise the security of FBI sources and informants.

Hoffa's legacy is still controversial. Critics charged that the script for the 1993 film dramatization of his life, by screenwriter David Mamet, celebrated Hoffa while purposely ignoring the extent of his involvement with crime figures. Also in 1993, the longtime suspicion that Hoffa had been involved in a plot to assassinate President Kennedy generated renewed interest. Frank Ragano, a former mob lawyer, claimed that he personally delivered a message from Hoffa to two mobsters, which read "kill the president." Such speculation has never been substantiated, but another aspect of Hoffa's legacy is beyond doubt. Although he was enormously successful in building the Teamsters, his association with mobsters left a stain on the union that would linger for decades to come. Not until the late 1980s, when the federal government took control of the union's national elections, did the Teamsters begin to emerge from the shadow of organized crime.

In September 2001, The Detroit News reported that DNA Evidence placed Hoffa in a car driven by a longtime friend on the day of his disappearance. The investigation was reopened but no further progress was made. In March 2002, the FBI announced that it would no longer continue its efforts to find and prosecute those who had caused Hoffa's disappearance and that the case would be referred to state officials for possible charges.

In 1998, Jimmy Hoffa's son, James Phillip Hoffa, carried on the family tradition when he was elected president of the Teamsters Union. He was sworn in by his sister, Barbara Ann, in May 1999. In 2001, Hoffa was reelected with almost a two-thirds majority vote.

Further readings

A&E Home Video. Hoffa: The True Story. 1992. Video cassette.

Hoffa, James R. 1970. The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa.

"Members Celebrate New Era for Teamsters." 1999. Teamster Magazine (July).

PBS Frontline. "JFK, Hoffa and the Mob." 1993. Video cassette.

Sinclair, Norman, and David Shepardson. 2001. "New Clue Might Mean Charges in Hoffa Death." The Detroit News (September 7).


Labor Law; Labor Union.

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