Former President of the Teamsters
When Hoffa became a liability
Jimmy Hoffa was the controversial leader of the Teamsters Union from 1957 to 1971. He was tough negotiator at the bargaining table, and even tougher in a street brawl. Hoffa was violent and ruthless, and he had a cozy relationship with the mob, but he made the union so powerful that it was eventually able to control the wages and working conditions of the entire trucking industry. The union rank-and-file loved Jimmy, and forgave his excesses, because as one member recalled, "Hoffa did steal from us, but he also gave us a hell of a lot."
James Riddle Hoffa was born at Brazil, Indiana, in 1913. His father was a coal miner who died from lung disease when Jimmy was seven years old. His family moved to Detroit in 1924. At 17, he quit school and went to work unloading produce from rail cars at a food warehouse. Working conditions at the warehouse were very poor. Workers had to be there for a twelve-hour shift, but they only got paid when they were actually loading or unloading. The foreman was a petty despot the workers called the "Little Bastard" because he was very abusive and would fire people for no reason.
In 1932, Hoffa helped to organize the workers and successfully led a strike. He declared a work stoppage just as a trainload of fresh strawberries arrived. Management was forced to negotiate and quickly agreed to raise wages and make several concessions.
About a year later, he was hired by the Teamsters as a union organizer. The Teamsters Union represents truck drivers and other workers in the trucking industry. It was founded in 1899, when horses were still the most common means of transporting goods. Instead of a salary, Hoffa was paid a small percentage of the dues of all the new members he signed up.
The Teamsters had an unusual way of recruiting new members. They didn’t rely on convincing truckers of the benefits of a union and then petitioning for a vote. They would go to the owner of a business and tell him to sign up all of his employees in the union or they would firebomb his trucks. After a few trucks were destroyed, word got around that the Teamsters meant business, so when the union came calling, many owners didn’t give them any trouble.
Not every company gave in so easily, and Hoffa was often involved in street fights with thugs and strikebreakers. He recalled, "If you went on strike, you got your head broken. I was hit so many times with night sticks, clubs and brass knuckles that I can’t even remember where the bruises are. Every time I showed up on the picket line, I got thrown in jail. Every time they released me, I went back to the picket line." In one 24-hour period he was arrested and jailed 18 times.
In 1952, Hoffa was elected as an International Vice President of the Teamsters and five years later was elected the International President. His predecessor was forced to resign after being sentenced to 5 years in prison for stealing union funds and tax evasion.
Beginning in 1957, Hoffa was the subject of many government investigations into corruption and the union’s relationship with the Mafia. He never denied those ties, "These organized crime figures are the people you should know if you're going to avoid having anyone interfere with your strike, and that's what we know them for.....We make it our business, and the head of any union who didn't would be a fool."
In 1964, Hoffa negotiated the first national contract for the Teamsters and under his leadership the Teamsters Union membership grew to over two million. But Hoffa was also convicted of misappropriating union funds, fraud and jury tampering in 1964, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. After exhausting all of his appeals, he began serving his sentence at the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He refused to resign as union president because he still enjoyed the support of most union members.
Hoffa was paroled from prison in 1971, thanks to President Richard Nixon, under the condition that he resign his office with the Teamsters and refrain from union activity till 1980. It was later revealed that the Teamsters had made many illegal campaign contributions to the Nixon campaign.
Despite the restrictions he was under, Hoffa continued his union activities. He began a campaign to undermine the authority of Frank Fitzsimmons, his hand-picked successor, and to get himself reelected president. He was risking everything, because it wasn’t just the government who didn’t want him back in charge of the union, the mobsters who controlled the union didn’t want him back either. They were happy with Fitzsimmons and didn’t want the attention that Hoffa’s return would bring.
Jimmy Hoffa told his wife he would be home for dinner, as he left for an afternoon meeting at a restaurant called the Machus Red Fox in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, on July 30, 1975. He was there to meet with Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamster official and reputed Mafia figure, and Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, a Mafia enforcer from Detroit. When Hoffa arrived, neither Provenzano or Giacalone were there so he waited outside in the parking lot. He made two calls from a pay phone while he was waiting and then disappeared sometime that afternoon. His car was found the next morning in the restaurant parking lot.
Both Provenzano and Giacalone denied that they had seen Hoffa on that day or that they had a meeting scheduled with him. It was obvious that both men had made a point of creating airtight alibis for that entire day. Giacalone was reported to have told a Hoffa associate, "Maybe he took a little trip."
Hoffa’s longtime friend Charles (Chuckie) O’Brien came under immediate suspicion because although Hoffa had treated him like a son for many years, their relationship became increasingly strained, and Chuckie had recently started working for Frank Fitzimmons.
Hoffa’s family believed that Chuckie used some pretense to get him to accept a ride to another location. In classic Mafia style, Hoffa was set up by someone he trusted and "taken for a ride." Chuckie was the only person who could have persuaded Hoffa to get in his car and there were many holes in Chuckie’s alibi for that day. A search of his car turned up some hair and specks of skin and blood, but they couldn’t prove it was Hoffa’s.
In 1997 the Detroit Sunday Journal printed excerpts from a secret FBI report written in 1975, that said, "All sources believe that Hoffa’s disappearance is directly connected with his attempts to regain power within the Teamsters Union…It has been rumored among sources that Hoffa, attempting to gain control of the Teamsters, may have provided information to the Government…" The FBI has never confirmed whether Hoffa was cooperating with them, but clearly the mob believed he had and decided to silence him for good.
In September 2001, the FBI announced that DNA tests had been performed on the strand of hair that was found in Chuckie O’Brien’s car. Those DNA tests confirmed that Hoffa had been in Chuckie’s car, but it still wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge anyone with Hoffa’s murder. Chuckie O’Brien continues to deny any involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance, and the FBI considers the Hoffa case still open and under investigation.
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