The Ghost of Jimmy Hoffa
By David Macaray | CounterPunch
“I may have lots of faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them.” — Jimmy Hoffa
Notoriety comes in two basic favors. There’s your old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill notoriety, the kind that usually attaches itself to politicians, wealthy socialites, and naughty movie stars—and eventually fades out—and there’s your Jimmy Hoffa notoriety, the kind that never goes away.
In the 44 years since Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder (he vanished July 30, 1975, was declared “legally dead” on July 30, 1982), the amount of material written about him by journalists—not to mention doughnut shop gossip and crackpot conspiracy theories—is astounding.
And it’s still happening. Martin Scorsese, the gifted movie director with a schoolboy crush on gangsters, has just made a new Hoffa film purporting to solve the murder. As much as we admire Scorsese, his three-hour-long, highly stylized movie, with Al Pacino playing Jimmy, will “solve” nothing.
So let’s start with what we do know. Let’s start with the Midwestern organization that set out to represent the rugged men who handled teams of horses and horse-drawn wagons, and eventually became the storied International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).
At its peak (with 2.3 million members), the IBT was the largest labor union in America. In tribute to those modest roots, the official Teamster symbol is still a picture of two bridled horse heads.
One reason it’s appropriate to start at the beginning is to demonstrate that the Teamsters were never not a shady organization. Hoffa gets tagged (if not “defined”) as the “union president with criminal ties,” but in truth, the IBT, as far back as the early 1900s, was already considered a dirty union.
And the Teamsters weren’t alone. Back in those rough-and-tumble days, business, politics, and labor were all riddled with corruption. So Hoffa had a valid point when he noted sarcastically, before the Kennedy subcommittee, “It has to be considered damned unusual that no other union was ever investigated.”
It’s a fascinating history. The IBT was founded in 1903, with Cornelius Shea, a man beset with legal troubles and character flaws, serving as its first International president. Although “Corny” Shea was indicted numerous times, he demonstrated formidable survival and organizational skills.
Under Shea’s guidance, the Teamsters adopted a rigid and centralized, top-down leadership model—one which the union would, with mixed results, embrace for the next 80 years. During Shea’s 4-year reign, membership increased to almost 50,000.
Despite the indictments and accusations of corruption, it was Shea’s personal reputation that did him in. The public and rank-and-file turned against him when it was revealed that he had once lived—actually resided—in a whorehouse, and had kept a 19-year old waitress as his mistress.
But “modern” Teamster history properly begins with Shea’s successor, Dan Tobin, who was born in Ireland, in 1875. Incredibly, Tobin remained International president from 1907 all the way to 1952. Put in perspective, Tobin became president six years before Jimmy Hoffa was born, and didn’t leave office until Hoffa was 39 years old.
Tobin bequeathed the Teamsters three legacies: (1) jurisdictional disputes arising from raiding other unions (by 1941, dues-paying members numbered 530,000), (2) running the union autocratically, and (3) making sure the top officers were lavishly overpaid.
Shortly before Tobin was to retire, the executive board not only voted to raise his annual salary from $30,000 to $50,000, but to pay it to him for life. They also built him, free of charge, a luxury mansion in Miami Beach, and provided him with a car and driver, a full-time maid, and incidental, life long “spending money.” The IBT’s celebrated love affair with extravagance and conspicuous consumption began early.
If “modern” Teamster history is said to begin with Dan Tobin, then its so-called “notorious” period began with Dave Beck, who was elected president in 1953, after forcing (with Hoffa’s help) Dan Tobin out of office.
It was Beck who boldly moved Teamster headquarters from Indianapolis to their spectacular new digs in Washington D.C., arguing that staying in provincial Indiana was silly, given that Washington was where all the action was. That formidable building, made of gleaming white stone (which instantly became known as the “Marble Palace”), still serves as Teamster headquarters, occupying prime real estate on Louisiana Avenue NW, across a plaza from the United States Senate.
Beck was also the first Teamster president to serve time in prison. Like Al Capone, he was convicted of tax evasion. As we shall see with the scheming and avaricious Frank Fitzsimmons, the feds had a vast array of charges against Beck from which to choose but went with the easiest to prove. Tax evasion is simple arithmetic.
Yet, when it came to malfeasance, Beck was probably no worse than dozens of other Teamster officials. As one historian declared, “The Teamsters had suffered from extensive corruption since its formation in 1903.” So the IBT was already recognized as corrupt 50 years before Beck even took office.
It could also be said that no union was more brutal or anti-democratic. And none were greedier. Once the IBT reached half a million members, and the pension funds began over flowing with ready cash, the temptation was simply too great.
Predictably, these officers—most of whom were street-wise men who grew up poor—became pigs at the trough. And it wasn’t long before those pension funds found their way into Mob hands.
One thing about Dave Beck that gets overlooked is that he was the first Teamster to negotiate a “master contract,” a stroke of strategic genius that basically handed the union the Keys to the Kingdom. A “master contract” is a collective bargaining agreement that essentially covers all the workers in an industry, which, in the Teamsters case, applied to every unionized truck driver in the country. As even a casual observer must realize, something as comprehensive and all-encompassing as a master contract not only gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “union solidarity,” but the leverage a union gains at the bargaining table from such a contract is immeasurable.
It will be recalled that, back in the glory days of the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Big Three automakers (Chrysler, Ford and General Motors) regularly engaged in what was referred to as “patterned bargaining.”
This was where one of the Big Tree would be “chosen” as the first to negotiate a new UAW contract, with the implicit understanding that the other two companies would agree to the same basic terms when it came their turn. One could say that a master contract is a version of patterned bargaining, but without the specific details and minutiae being included.
Beck also established what became a national arbitration plan for the adjudication of grievances. While Hoffa gets the lion’s share of the credit for Teamster success—most of it deserved—it was Dave Beck, who, in his one term as president, from 1953 to 1957, put the Teamsters in the position to accomplish what they did during the decade of the 1960s.
And what they accomplished in 1964 was remarkable. Hoffa negotiated the National Master Freight Agreement which virtually guaranteed the wages of 450,000 over-the-road truck drivers. It’s fair to say that it was this agreement that put the Teamsters in a position to run the table. Arguably, in the entire history of U.S. labor, there has never been a better contract than the 1964 Master Freight (and that includes Reuther’s landmark “Treaty of Detroit,” in 1950).
James Riddle Hoffa was born February 14, 1913, in Brazil, Indiana. His father, a coal miner, died when Jimmy was seven years old, and in 1924, the family moved to Detroit, where Hoffa grew up and spent most of his life. As a seventh-grader, at the age of fourteen, Hoffa quit school and began working at various manual labor jobs in order to help support his family. When Jimmy was seventeen years old, working on a loading dock of the Kroger Grocery company, in Detroit, he led a spontaneous strike, protesting low pay and poor conditions. Even at that age and height (as an adult, Hoffa was only 5' 5"), he exhibited preternatural confidence and fearlessness recognizable by men twice his age. While the term “charismatic leader” tends to be over-used, it definitely applied to Hoffa.
Hoffa’s union career officially began when he was invited to leave Kroger and become an organizer at Teamster Local 299, in Detroit. The ambitious and competent Hoffa moved up the ladder quickly, and in 1957, when Dave Beck, swamped with a seemingly unending list of racketeering and embezzlement indictments, chose to “step down,” Hoffa was named International president at the Teamster convention, held, as always, in Miami.
Back in those days, the membership didn’t vote. To be fair, this unassailable, anti-democratic approach was true of most big unions, not only the Teamsters. Because a “one man, one vote” configuration was so unpredictable, it was anathema to big labor.
But the way the Teamsters went about it was more obnoxious than most. Only the delegates were allowed to vote for the top spots. And who appointed those delegates? The sixteen vice-presidents. And who elected the vice-presidents? The delegates. With that set of “circular” bylaws, how could there not be corruption?
Although the membership had no voice, many were fine with that arrangement, so long as they were receiving generous contracts. But not every local was getting those good deals. Teamster brass was settling “sweetheart” contracts, receiving kickbacks from the companies to keep the workers down. And if the membership protested too loudly, they were harassed or, worse, physically beaten down by union thugs.
As a consequence, during the early 1980s two grassroots reform groups were formed. First came PROD (Professional Drivers Council), which was inspired by Ralph Nader, and later came the TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), spear headed largely by courageous union activists with the United Parcel Service (UPS).
Inevitably, in 1989, the Teamsters were dragged kicking and screaming toward democracy. They were forced to share their authority with the membership. Not all of it, but much of it. Still, it was a watershed moment in labor history.
Citing the RICO statute (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), the feds declared war on the IBT. And the Teamsters knew this wasn’t an empty threat. Also, rumor had it that part of that deal included the feds promising not to publicize the fact that Fitzsimmons and Jackie Presser had been long-time government informants. That disclosure would’ve been dynamite.
As important as Hoffa was to labor history, he was never admired in the way that labor’s Holy Trinity was. That trio consisted of Walter Reuther, president of the UAW, Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers (UMW). What set Hoffa apart from these labor giants was, essentially, his lack of ideology.
Tough Hoffa was intelligent, gutsy and utterly committed, he wasn’t given to ideology. By contrast, Reuther, raised by Socialists, came of as a humanitarian. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Australian-born Harry Bridges was a former member of the Communist Party, a true lefty and brilliant tactician. And John L. Lewis was a strict Mormon and life-long Republican, who viewed helping the poor as his moralistic calling.
But Hoffa saw things the way Tomas Hobbes would have seen them had he been a labor union rep. For Hoffa, economics could be summarized in one sentence: The only way working people will ever get their fair share is by forcing management to give it to them.
And only a union had the muscle to do that. So, in 1957, at a garishly extravagant convention in Miami (Teamster décor was a testament to bad taste), Hoffa became fourth president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
But there was another convention being held that same year, this one in Atlantic City. It was the AFL-CIO convention. The “House of Labor,” led by the cranky George Meany, was then (and now) the largest labor federation in the world. At that 1957 convention, they made the unprecedented move of voting to expel the Teamsters unless Jimmy Hoffa agreed to resign as president. Besides not trusting Hoffa, Meany and the AFL-CIO were under pressure from the federal government to help de-fang the Teamsters.
At the time, the IBT was contributing $750,000 a year to AFL-CIO coffers, so expulsion was no symbolic gesture. Hoffa is in office ten minutes, and the almighty AFL-CIO is already calling for his head. But not only was Hoffa not going to resign, he was also just getting started being Jimmy Hoffa.
The Teamsters were going rogue. Following his re-election in 1961, Hoffa set to work expanding and strengthening his union. That effort culminated in the aforementioned 1964 Master Freight Agreement, which virtually put all over-the-road truck drivers in North America under one contract. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of truck drivers who, if they chose to strike, would bring the U.S. economy to its knees.
Indeed, it was the insane prospect of the Teamsters turning the U.S. economy into their own private fiefdom, coupled with organized crime increasing its stranglehold on the biggest labor union in America, that prompted Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to say of Hoffa, “He’s not just the most powerful man in labor, he’s the most powerful man in the country, next to the President.”
Of course, anyone who followed those Senate hearings already knew that Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy loathed each other. Bobby saw Hoffa as a greedy, power-hungry goon with a Napoleonic complex, and Jimmy saw Bobby and the whole Kennedy family—despite their wealth and glamour—as a nest of maggots.
Accordingly, by the mid-1960s, the U.S. government had made it their mission to put Jimmy Hoffa behind bars. Ultimately, what the feds convicted him of was jury tampering, and in 1967, he was sent to prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
While loyal holdouts insist to this day that Hoffa had been framed, they are mistaken. There is no denying Hoffa committed numerous crimes, any one of which could have landed him in prison. Conventional wisdom tells us that he was “forced” to rely on Mob muscle for leverage in the early days—which was ostensibly true—but Hoffa also benefitted personally from many of these illegal undertakings.
In any event, Hoffa’s tenure as Teamster president officially stretched from 1957 to 1971. From 1967 to 1971, he essentially ran the union from his jail cell with the help of the man he had hand-picked to run the organization in his absence. Which brings us to the enigmatic Frank Fitzsimmons.
It’s no exaggeration to say that people were staggered when Hoffa named Fitzsimmons as his replacement. Even “Fitz” supporters considered the man unqualified. While many were simply bewildered by the appointment, others were angered and offended by it. Hoffa picking a glorified “gofer” like Frank Fitzsimmons was tantamount to mocking the office of president. And of course, this eccentric personnel move ultimately backfired.
Still, once Hoffa’s associates gave it some thought, the “Fitz” decision made eminent sense. Jimmy wanted a weak, unambitious and malleable person in charge so he, Hoffa, could continue to call the shots from Lewisburg. He wanted a “puppet,” and that’s exactly what he got. For a while.
But two things happened. First, Fitz began to get comfortable sitting in the big guy’s chair, enjoying the many perks that come with being president, and second, the Mob began to get comfortable having him there. Unlike Hoffa, who was making noises about phasing out the Mob, Fitz had no such ambitions. The Mob had come to regard the Teamster pension funds as a reliable source of income and intended to keep it that way.
In 1971, with Hoffa still in prison, Fitzsimmons was elected Teamster president. And in December, he persuaded President Richard Nixon to commute Hoffa’s sentence even though he’d served less than five years of a 13-year stretch. Alas, Hoffa’s sentence was commuted on the express condition that he not seek union office until 1980. And that stipulation (which Hoffa abhorred but reluctantly accepted) set in motion all that
During this same period—with Fitz nominally doing Hoffa’s bidding while simultaneously betraying him—the feds compiled a laundry list of things to charge Fitzsimmons with, including election fraud, mail fraud, perjury, extortion, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribery, and racketeering. Potential indictments aside, Fitz won re-election in 1976, despite some spirited resistance from the TDU faction.
Everyone marveled at how lucky Fitzsimmons was at not being prosecuted. The prevailing theories were that the feds either didn’t have enough hardcore evidence to convict or that Fitz was playing both sides. Years later it was revealed that he had indeed been snitching on union leaders to the IRS and DOJ in return for not being prosecuted.
After Hoffa was released, he began promising that he was not only going to re-take the union, but he was going to “clean house,” referring to the criminal element. In the Mob world, a defiant promise of that sort—from someone who appears to mean what he says—is bound to incite fury. Whether Hoffa knew it or not, he had outlived his usefulness and was now seen as a threat.
Theories surrounding his murder are legion. While no one was ever charged, the FBI’s roster of “persons of interest” eventually numbered in the hundreds. If you were to randomly throw a rock in Detroit, you would likely hit somebody who swore “he knew a guy who knew a guy” who’d confessed to it. Everybody knew a guy. Conveniently, they were all dead. Perhaps the most stunning thing about the assassination was its naked arrogance. Despite all the rumors—the rampant speculation suggesting that Hoffa was being set up for a hit—the Mob stuck to its plan. They killed Jimmy Hoffa even though everyone was more or less watching. Of course, the body was never found and never will be. Nor will the murderer.
There’s an irony here. Not only irony but a measure of poetic justice. As president of the most brutally violent union in U.S. history, Hoffa likely died a brutal, violent death.
In 1979, and Hoffa still “missing,” the chill winds of labor reform gusted. With a stroke of his pen, President Jimmy Carter changed everything. He signed legislation that deregulated the national freight industry, a move that effectively ended Teamster hegemony and resulted in non-union “gypsy” drivers fooding the market, thus causing the price (and accompanying wages) of hauling freight to plummet.
There was more. In 1982, Roy Williams, who, the year before, had replaced Fitzsimmons as IBT president (Fitz resigned for health reasons), was convicted of bribing a public official. Williams had recklessly offered Nevada Senator Howard Cannon money to vote against deregulation. Cannon reported him, and Williams was sent to prison.
And then, in 1983, Jackie Presser, son of William (“Big Bill”) Presser, a multi-term international vice-president, replaced Williams as president. Jackie Presser served as IBT president from 1983 to 1988. He died in office at age 61. It was during the Presser regime that the Teamsters began showing the inevitable wear and tear that comes with 80 years of corruption. The TDU faction grew stronger, the feds exposed the Central States Pension Fund for the fraudulent enterprise it was, and Jackie Presser (an FBI snitch) began a crusade to root out the union’s criminal element. The good news? In 1985, the Teamsters were graciously allowed to rejoin the AFL-CIO.
In 1991, Ron Carey was elected president. A UPS activist and TDU favorite, Carey began shaking things up from the moment he took office, and handily won re-election in 1996.
But when it was revealed he’d received kickbacks, a “Dump Carey” campaign forced him from office. While the charges were flimsy, the Old Guard wanted this reform-minded president out.
From 1903 to the present, the IBT has had nine International presidents. And since 1998, it’s been James P. Hoffa, Jimmy’s son. Nostalgically, they’ve come full circle. Hoffa to Hoffa. By most accounts, James P. is a likable, hardworking guy with a University of Michigan law degree. Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara, is a retired judge.
Needless to say, today’s Teamsters bear little resemblance to the grandiose Teamsters of the 1960s and ‘70s. Not only is there no aura of danger or malevolence, but that fabled “Teamster mystique” is gone. No longer exclusively identified with truckers and warehousemen, the union now represents computer programmers, security guards, nurses, fight attendants, and such.
However, there was an instance, in 2005, where the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa appeared to rise up. In an act of defiance, James P. got his members to pull out of the venerable House of Labor and join the newly formed “Change to Win,” a labor federation in direct competition with the AFL-CIO. Even sweeter, he took several million members from other unions along with him.
Papa would’ve been proud.
David Macaray is an author and former labor organizer. His newest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.
View article on originating site