Hand color tinted photo from 1958 of International Brotherhood of Teamsters union leader, Jimmy Hoffa
James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa (born February 14, 1913 – disappeared July 30, 1975, declared legally dead July 30, 1982) was an American labor union leader.
Hoffa was involved with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union as an organizer from 1932 to 1975. He served as the union’s General President from 1958 to 1971. He secured the first national agreement for teamsters’ rates in 1964, and played a major role in the growth and development of the union, which eventually became the largest single union in the United States, with over 1.5 million members during his terms as its leader.
Hoffa, who had been convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud in 1964, was imprisoned in 1967, sentenced to 13 years, after exhausting the appeal process. It was not until mid-1971 that he officially resigned the Teamsters’ presidency, an action that was part of a pardon agreement with U.S. president Richard Nixon, in order to facilitate his release later that year. Nixon blocked Hoffa from union activities until 1980 (which would have been the end of his prison term, had he served the full sentence); Hoffa was attempting to overturn this order and to regain support.
Hoffa was last seen in late July 1975, outside the Machus Red Fox, a suburban Detroit restaurant.
Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, on February 14, 1913. His paternal ancestors were partially “Pennsylvania Dutch” (German). His father, a coal miner, died in 1920 when Hoffa was seven years old, and the family moved to Detroit in 1924, where Hoffa was raised and lived the rest of his life. Hoffa left school at age 14, and began full-time manual labor to help support his family.
Hoffa began union organizational work at the grassroots level through his employment as a teenager with a grocery chain, which paid substandard wages and offered poor working conditions with minimal job security. The workers were displeased with this situation and tried to organize a union to better their lot. Although Hoffa was young, his bravery and approachability in this role impressed fellow workers, and he rose to a leadership position. By 1932, after being dismissed from the grocery chain—in part because of his union activities—Hoffa joined and became involved with Local 299 of the Teamsters in Detroit.
He married Josephine Poszywak in 1936, and bought a modest home in Detroit. The couple had two children: a daughter, Barbara Ann, and a son, James. The Hoffa family later had a summer property at Lake Orion, Michigan, north of Detroit.
Growth of the Teamsters
The Teamsters union, founded in 1903, had only 75,000 members in 1933. As a result of Hoffa’s work with other union leaders to consolidate local union trucker groups into regional sections and then into one gigantic national body—work that Hoffa ultimately completed over a period of two decades—membership grew to 170,000 members by 1936. Three years later, there were 420,000; and the number grew steadily during World War II and through the post-war boom to top a million members by 1951.
The Teamsters organized truck drivers and warehousemen, first throughout the Midwest, and then nationwide. Hoffa played a major role in the union’s skillful use of “quickie strikes”, secondary boycotts, and other means of leveraging union strength at one company, to then move to organize workers, and finally to win contract demands at other companies. This process, which took several years from the early 1930s, eventually brought the Teamsters to a position of being one of the most powerful unions in the United States.
Hoffa’s rise to power
Hoffa worked to defend the Teamsters unions from raids by other unions, including the CIO, and extended the Teamsters’ influence in the Midwestern states, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s. Although he never actually worked as a truck driver, he became president of Local 299 in December 1946. He then rose to lead the combined group of Detroit-area locals shortly afterwards, and advanced to become head of the Michigan Teamsters groups sometime later. During this time, Hoffa obtained a deferment from military service in World War II, by successfully making a case for his union leadership skills being of more value to the nation, by keeping freight running smoothly to assist the war effort.
By 1952, Hoffa rose to national vice-president of the Teamsters’ IBT union, which was on its way to becoming the largest and most powerful single union in the United States. At the IBT convention in Los Angeles, he was selected by incoming president Dave Beck, successor to Daniel J. Tobin, who had been president since 1907. Hoffa quelled an internal revolt against Beck by securing Central States region support for Beck at the convention. In exchange, Beck made Hoffa a vice-president.
The IBT moved its headquarters from Indianapolis to Washington, DC, taking over a large office building in the US capital in 1955. IBT staff was also enlarged during this period, with many lawyers hired to assist with contract negotiations. Following his 1952 election as vice-president, Hoffa began spending more of his time away from Detroit; either in Washington or traveling around the US for his expanded responsibilities.
Teamsters Union Presidency
Hoffa took over the presidency of the Teamsters in 1957, at the convention in Miami Beach, Florida. His predecessor, Dave Beck, had appeared before the John Little McClellan-led US Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor or Management Field in March 1957, and took the Fifth Amendment 140 times in response to questions. Beck was under indictment when the IBT convention took place, and was convicted on fraud charges later that year at a trial held in Seattle, and imprisoned.
Teamsters union expelled
The 1957 AFL-CIO convention, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, voted by a ratio of nearly 5-1 to expel the IBT from the larger union group. President George Meany gave an emotional speech, advocating removal of the IBT, and stating that he could only agree to further affiliation of the Teamsters if they would dismiss Hoffa as their president. Meany demanded a response from Hoffa, who replied through the press, “We’ll see.” At the time, IBT was bringing in over $750,000 annually to the AFL-CIO.
National Master Freight Agreement
Following his re-election as president in 1961, Hoffa worked to expand the union. In 1964, he succeeded in bringing virtually all over-the-road truck drivers in North America under a single national master-freight agreement, in what may have been his finest achievement in a lifetime of union activity. He then tried to bring the airline workers and other transport employees into the union, with limited success. During this period, he was facing immense personal strain as he was under investigation, on trial, launching appeals of convictions, or imprisoned for virtually all of the 1960s.
In 1964, Hoffa was convicted in Chattanooga, Tennessee, of attempted bribery of a grand juror and was sentenced to eight years. This case resulted from an earlier matter, the Test Fleet case, the trial for which had been held in Nashville, Tennessee. Hoffa was implicated by one of his close associates, Edward Grady Partin, a Louisiana teamster, who went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with the information that led to Hoffa’s conviction. Hoffa was also convicted of fraud later that same year for improper use of the Teamsters’ pension fund, in a trial held in Chicago. He received a five-year sentence to run consecutively to his bribery sentence. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had pursued Hoffa for years—since the John Little McClellan-led U.S. Senate Labor industry hearings of 1957—stepped down as Attorney General in 1964, after the second Hoffa conviction, to run successfully for the New York seat in the November 1964 United States Senate election.
Hoffa spent the next three years unsuccessfully appealing his 1964 convictions. Appeals filed by his chief counsel, St. Louis defense attorney Morris Shenker, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He began serving his sentences in March 1967 at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Just before he entered prison, Hoffa appointed Frank Fitzsimmons as acting Teamsters president. Fitzsimmons was a Hoffa loyalist, fellow Detroit resident, and a longtime member (since the 1930s) of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, who owed his own high position in large part to Hoffa’s influence. Despite this, Fitzsimmons distanced himself from Hoffa’s influence and control after 1967, to Hoffa’s displeasure. Fitzsimmons also decentralized power somewhat within the Teamsters’ union administration structure. During the Hoffa era, Hoffa had kept most power in his own hands.
On December 23, 1971, less than five years into his 13-year sentence, Hoffa was released from the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania prison, when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to time served. Hoffa had served nearly 58 months, or just over one-third of his original sentence. Following his release from prison, Hoffa was awarded a Teamsters’ pension of $1.7 million, delivered in a one-time lump sum payment. This type of pension settlement had not occurred before with the Teamsters.
The IBT endorsed Richard Nixon, the Republican Party’s candidate, in his presidential re-election bid in 1972; in prior elections, the IBT union had supported Democratic Party nominees. Suspicions were soon raised of a deal for Hoffa’s release being connected with the IBT’s support of Nixon in 1972. Following Nixon’s resignation from the office of the presidency over the Watergate scandal in August, 1974, Nixon avoided public life for over a year; his first public event was a charity fundraising golf tournament in California on October 9, 1975, at the La Costa Resort and Spa, which was heavily attended by Teamsters’ leaders and associates, including IBT President Frank Fitzsimmons and Allen Dorfman; Hoffa had disappeared ten weeks earlier.
While glad to regain his freedom, Hoffa was displeased with the condition imposed on his release by President Nixon that restricted Hoffa from participating in union activities until March 1980. He accused the Nixon administration senior figures, including Attorney General John N. Mitchell and White House Special Counsel Charles W. Colson, of depriving him of his rights by initiating this clause; both Mitchell and Colson denied this. It was likely imposed upon Hoffa as the result of requests from senior Teamsters’ leadership, although IBT President Frank Fitzsimmons also denied this.
Hoffa sued to invalidate the non-participation restriction, in order to reassert his power over the Teamsters, and John Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon, was among those called upon for depositions in 1974 court proceedings. Dean, who had become famous as the main whistleblower of the Watergate scandal by mid-1973, had drafted the non-participation clause in 1971 at Nixon’s request. Hoffa ultimately lost his court battle, since the court ruled that Nixon had acted within his powers by imposing the restriction, as it was based on Hoffa’s misconduct while serving as a Teamsters official.
Hoffa faced immense resistance to his re-establishment of power, from many quarters, and had lost much of his earlier support, even in the Detroit area. As a result, he intended to begin his comeback at the local level, with Local 299 in Detroit, where he retained some influence.
In 1975, Hoffa was working on an autobiography titled Hoffa: The Real Story, which was published a few months after his disappearance. He had earlier published a 1970 book titled The Trials of Jimmy Hoffa.
Hoffa disappeared at, or sometime after, 2:45 pm on July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, an affluent suburb of Detroit. According to what he had told others, he believed he was to meet there with two Mafia leaders—Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano. Provenzano was also a union leader with the Teamsters in New Jersey, and had earlier been quite close to Hoffa. Provenzano was a national vice-president with IBT from 1961, Hoffa’s second term as Teamsters’ president.
When Hoffa did not return home that evening, his wife reported him missing. Police found Hoffa’s car at the restaurant but no sign of Hoffa himself or any indication of what happened to him. Extensive investigations into the disappearance began immediately, and continued over the next several years by several law enforcement groups, including the FBI. However, the investigations did not conclusively determine Hoffa’s fate. For their part, Giacalone and Provenzano were found not to have been near the restaurant that afternoon, and each denied they had scheduled a meeting with Hoffa.
Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982, on the seventh anniversary of his disappearance, when he would have been aged 69.
Hoffa’s son, James P. Hoffa, is the Teamsters’ current leader, serving since 1999 in that position. His daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, retired as an Associate Circuit Judge in St. Louis County, Missouri in March 2008, but in March 2009, Judge Crancer agreed to serve as an Assistant Attorney General to the Attorney General for the State of Missouri, Chris Koster, as Chief Counsel of the Division of Civil Disability and Workers Rights, and retired again in March 2011. The television show MythBusters featured an episode involving the possible burial of Hoffa at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Ground-penetrating radar revealed no disturbances beneath the playing field. The Giants Stadium has since been demolished.
In 2001, the FBI matched DNA from Hoffa’s hair—taken from a brush—with a strand of hair found in a 1975 Mercury Marquis Brougham driven by longtime friend Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien on July 30, 1975. Police and Hoffa’s family had long believed O’Brien played a role in Hoffa’s disappearance. O’Brien, however, had previously denied ever being involved in Hoffa’s disappearance or that Hoffa had ever taken a ride in his 1975 Mercury Marquis Brougham.
On June 16, 2006, the Detroit Free Press published in its entirety the so-called “Hoffex Memo”, a 56-page report the FBI prepared for a January 1976 briefing on the case at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Although not claiming to conclusively establish the specifics of his disappearance, the memo indicates that law enforcement’s belief is that Hoffa was murdered at the behest of organized crime figures who deemed his efforts to regain power within the Teamsters to be a threat to their control of the union’s pension fund. The FBI has called the report the definitive account of what agents believe happened to Hoffa.