XVII: Labor and Working Class Culture

Jimmy Hoffa

(1913-1981) President, International Brother of Teamsters

             Born in Brazil, Indiana on Valentine’s Day 1913, James “Jimmy” Hoffa referred to himself as “the meanest bastard God ever created.” Hoffa took pride in his toughness as he battled his employers as a worker, owners as a union organizer, and the federal government as a union officer. After his father, John, died in 1920, Hoffa’s mother Viola moved her family to Detroit to be closer to relatives. Wanting to help his mother, Hoffa quit school about the seventh grade to work full-time. In 1931he took a job unloading food shipments. Later that year, poor pay and an overbearing supervisor prompted the eighteen-year-old to lead his fellow workers in a spontaneous strike. Demonstrating shrewdness, Hoffa negotiated raises and union recognition for all 175 laborers.

            Hoffa’s abilities as a hard-headed negotiator created a new model for labor relations in the Midwest. In 1935, Detroit Teamsters Local 299 hired him as an organizer. He immediately increased membership by adding over-the-road drivers and warehouse workers to the already organized delivery drivers. In expanding the membership Hoffa had to battle employer resistance and jurisdictional issues. When owners blocked Hoffa’s organizing efforts, he informed them that if they did not want their trucks blown-up they would recognize the Teamsters. Jurisdictional problems proved more complex. For example, a Local 299 long-hauler was no longer considered a union worker after leaving Detroit. In 1937 Minneapolis Teamsters created the Central States Drivers Council (CSDC) to end this problem. At first the organization did little, but when Hoffa became bargaining committee chair in 1940 it succeeded. Drivers in twelve midwestern states gained cross-state recognition, a unified pay scale, and benefits. By 1947, the CSDC represented 125,000 drivers. Hoffa’s successes culminated in his much heralded 1957 election as Teamster President. Under Hoffa’s leadership the Teamsters Union claimed 2 million members, and they were among the highest paid unionists in the country in the 1960s.        
            Hoffa’s organizing methods, however, brought him under legal scrutiny. When the U.S. Senate’s McClellan Committee formed to investigate racketeering, committee member Robert Kennedy made Hoffa his prime target. Kennedy’s investigation found that Hoffa had business dealings with mafia run companies and discovered money missing from the union’s pension fund. Through the McClellan Committee and later as Attorney General, Kennedy brought Hoffa to trial twice for racketeering related offences. Both ended in acquittal. A third trial, for jury tampering in 1962,sent Hoffa to jail. After he had spent four-and-a-half years in prison, President Richard Nixon granted Hoffa clemency in 1971. During his incarceration, mobsters had consolidated their power within the Teamsters. Seeking to come to an agreement, and hoping to regain his office, Hoffa agreed to meet Detroit mafia leaders on July 30, 1975. The mafia men never arrived, and since walking out of the Red Fox restaurant that day Hoffa has not been seen, and was legally presumed dead in 1982.
John Enyeart
Stanford University
Steven Brill, The Teamsters (1978); Thaddeus Russell, Out of the Jungle (2001); Walter Sheridan, The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa (1972); Arthur A. Sloane, Hoffa (1991).