My Friend Jimmy Hoffa
There was a time, in the summer and fall of 1974, when I could refer to James R. Hoffa, the former General President of the InternationaJ Brotherhood of Teamsters as "my friend Jimmy."
When Hoffa began the fight to get his old job back with the Teamsters after he was released from prison in 1971,1 rooted for him. With my Marxist background, I had learned to view the world through the prism of the class struggle. There was something about Hoffa's class-consciousness that appealed to me despite his depredations.
Hoffa was last seen on July 30, 1975 when he disappeared from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield, Michigan. Jimmy told his wife Josephine he would be home around 4 p.m. to grill steaks for dinner. After 39 years of marriage, she knew Jimmy would not be late. This time he was.
Never found, he was declared legally dead in 1983. The early '70s was a volatile time. The Vietnam War was grinding to an end and Nixon was working his way toward a resignation.
In 1972, Watergate happened and for the next couple of years the investigative report took the television news and documentary business by storm. Newsmen, in both print and TV journalism, wanted to become Woodward and Bernstein and news editors tried to be Ben Bradlee, the highly praised editor of the Washington Post who broke the Watergate story—or rather, allowed the story to be broken.
At ABC NEWS Closeup, all my colleagues were scrambling to do investigative reports. I came up with the idea of doing an investigative biography.
"Of whom?" Executive Producer, Av Westin, asked. "Jimmy Hoffa," I said.
"What?" Av sneered, "You want to give that gangster an hour of network airtime to toot his own horn?" "We can control that," I said. "A convicted crook and jury tamperer?" "One of the 20' Century's most important labor leaders..." "Married to the mob?"
"Well, maybe. Everything's not all black or white, you know." My political orientation gave me away. The conventional wisdom, in left wing circles, was that an organized working class and a strong trade union movement put you on the road to Socialism. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters may have been the country's most powerful union but it was far from taking the Socialist road.
Hoffa's fight to retake leadership of the Teamsters could be a story of high drama that would give us a way to take a different kind of look into the labor movement in America.
Under capitalism, the assault on labor was overwhelming, continuous, inhuman and destructive from the beginning of the industrial revolution to this very day. No wonder unions are dysfunctional and chaotic. So are most of their leaders. If they're not coerced, co-opted or corrupted, they're framed, jailed or neutralized in some way. Only when capitalism is in the throes of crisis, deep depression and near collapse can labor leaders like Eugene V. Debs or John L. Lewis emerge.
Debs organized the American Railway Union, an industrial union ror all railroad workers in 1893, became a confirmed Socialist while serving time in prison for refusing to comply with a federal court injunction, ran for President of the United States four times on the Socialist Party ticket, the last time from prison in 1920 and received nearly 1 million votes.
John L. Lewis led the United Mine Workers in organizing most of the coal industry, was one of the organizers of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936 and joined the Reuther brothers, Walter and Victor, in organizing the United Auto Workers' sit-' strikes against General Motors at their Flint, Michigan plants.
For 44 bitterly cold winter days the auto workers in Flint held out eventually inspiring more than two-thirds of General Motors' I45 thousand other production workers to strike as well, at dozens of other plants. The strikers in Flint seized, shut down and occupied one, then two, and then three of the key GM plants. Suddenly, workers everywhere were sitting-down. There were 477 sit-down strikes by the end of 1937, involving more than half a million workers.
Mighty GM had vowed publicly that it would never allow the UAW to represent its employees. But the General Motors Corporation ended up granting that crucial right—and more—to the union. It was a stunning victory for the United Auto Workers. It led the way—and swiftly—to the unionization of workers throughout heavy industry and, ultimately, to unionization in all fields. It certainly was the high water mark of labor power in America.
I wanted to see how Jimmy Hoffa stacked up along side a Debs or a John L. Lewis.
I had mixed feelings about Hoffa. On the one hand, he had used the rank and file as his personal power base; on the other, he had given them one of the highest standards of living of any union in America. He negotiated the Master Freight Agreement, a national contract with the employers, one of the best in the country, yet he was charged with robbing the members' pension funds. It was this kind of cockeyed contradiction in the man that intrigued me.
My first approach to Jimmy Hoffa was through Jim Kincaid, one or our ABC News correspondents, who covered labor stories in the Mid" west and had a working relationship with Hoffa. I needed to use another ABC News Correspondent, Bill Gill, in order get access to then Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons in Washington. I also put Brit Hume on the show. He had done a story on the dissident movement in the Teamsters and had gotten into the inner working of the rebel group forming around Overdrive Magazine, a publication for independent truckers. He had also interviewed its editor, Michael Parkhurst.
I met Hoffa for the first time in June of 1974. My first impression was that of a charming pit-bull. At sixty-two, he was short, vigorous and feisty. Hair slicked back, graying at the temples, Jimmy had that charisma, the kind they accuse Bill Clinton of having—the kind of charm and "friendmanship" that puts you in the center of his universe. Yet the ingratiating smile covered some shifting of eyes and flashes of anger. It was understandable. He was under enormous pressure—trying to recover his old position in the union.
I was straight with Hoffa from the start. He needed some positive press. It was a simple deal.
"I give you one hour of network prime time—you give me total access." He jumped at the deal.
Av Westin conceded the story had merit, but not before I got a little help from my friend, Elmer Lower, who was still President of ABC News. When I broached the subject with Elmer, I could see a twinkle come into his eye. The name "Hoffa" still had star power and Elmer seemed to be a little star struck.
"Do you think you can bring him up to New York for lunch, one day?" Elmer asked.
The next week I had Hoffa at Elmer's reserved table at Alfredo's Restaurant on 59th Street. It was a very cordial lunch and Jimmy had Elmer spun before the appetizer was finished. There was no trouble getting budget approval for the show after that.
Hoffa invited me to hang out with him "up at the
lake", his country place about an hour north of Detroit. That's when he
became "my friend Jimmy. " I met his wife,
Josephine, a shy housewife who always stayed in the shadows—his son, James P.,
a young attorney, just start-lr>g a labor law
Up at the lake, I also met Hoffa's foster son, Chuckie O'Brien taken into the family when he was young. He acted as Hoffa's factotum and seemed to be closer to Jimmy than his own son.
I booked Correspondent Jim Kincaid and my film crew and brought them up to "the lake." For the next week, we did a running on-camera, in-depth interview with Hoffa covering his life, upside down and backwards. He made his fight to regain the Teamster Presidency a personal matter. He said:
The reason I want to
get back into the labor movement—even though I can retire, be in
In 1974, Detroit was one of the most highly unionized cities in America. Forty years before that, workers died on its streets trying to organize unions.
A union organizer since he was a teenager, Hoffa grew up with the labor movement in this country. His ideas and tactics were formed in the crucible of violence that was labor's early history. In 1931, at the age of 18, Hoffa organized the loading dock at the Kroger Company's Detroit warehouse.
Hoffa learned early that trade unions in America were forced
to fight for survival with bargaining, boycotts and blood. Most of the time,
union violence was provoked by industry and government's
use of force, exemplified in 1937 when
Early union organizers risked not only their jobs, but also their lives.
Hoffa recalled it this way:
Nobody can describe
the sit-down strikes, the riots, and the fights that took place in the State of
And if they found out that you...even passed out literature or talked union, you were subject to getting your skull broke...
Like all major unions, the Teamsters were no strangers to violence. In 1934, Teamster Local 544 in Minneapolis went on strike. A look at early Teamster history provides a better understanding of how Hoffa's ideas on the labor struggle were formed. He recalled:
In 1934, they had nothing to lose except the fact they may lose their life and that wasn 't worth much at that time because they couldn 't do nothing with their life....
And when you listen to a man like Vince or Ray Dunne talk or Farrell Dobbs talk...
Farrell Dobbs and the Dunne Brothers had been Trotskyites in Minneapolis in the thirties and organizers of Local 544 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
By mentioning Farrell Dobbs, Hoffa opened the door to a deeper probe of his character, permitting him to be more fully judged as a labor leader.
In 1934, Farrell Dobbs led the Minneapolis Teamster strike that resulted in a hostile 10-day armed conflict with police and 3000 National Guard troops.
We wanted to hear Farrell Dobbs talk, as Hoffa suggested...and we did. We tracked Dobbs down, living in retirement, outside Berkeley, California. He was a tall, gaunt man in his seventies, somewhat haggard. A lifetime in the labor struggle must have taken its toll. But his eyes lit up when he talked about the Minneapolis strike of 1934:
We came to battle...
the battle focused in the market district in
One of the outstanding things is not only the courage but the resourcefulness that a body of workers show when they 're in a mood to fight and they have leaders that are willing to lead them into a fight.
A look at this history provides a clue to understanding how Hoffa’s ideas on the labor struggle were formed. Hoffa says of Dobbs:
Farrell kept preaching the fact that nobody could, in the future, nobody would be able to win in their own town or their own state, but had to have expanded coverage for the entire transportation, warehousing and food industry. I realized how right he ivas and it had an impact on my mind as to the fact that the union could no longer survive, no matter how well organized, in a particular city or state... without wider coverage.
Farrell Dobbs explained to us what he did:
By the end of the 1930's, Dobbs had made the Midwest a Teamster stronghold. Dobbs was responsible for the concept of area-wide bargaining—the idea of getting regional and then national contracts. Years later, Hoffa used Dobbs' ideas in developing the National Master Freight Agreement.
His relationship with Farrell Dobbs was an important chapter in Hoffa's life. Dobbs and the Dunne brothers' political affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party in Minnesota exerted a strong influence on the young Jimmy Hoffa. But Hoffa's friendship with Dobbs reached a turning point in 1941 with the entry of the United States into World War II. The Socialist Workers Party was against the war. Dobbs and the Dunne brothers organized Teamster opposition to the US entry.
At that time, Dan Tobin was the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and a close friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt did not want Socialists in powerful labor positions during wartime, and he asked his friend Tobin to do something about it.
With war beginning in Europe, Tobin ordered Hoffa to have the International take over Minneapolis Local 544 and get rid of Dobbs and the Dunne brothers.
Although Hoffa's idealism toward the working-class struggle made him respect Dobbs, Hoffa's pragmatism in his fight for power led to his betrayal of Dobbs. Viewed today, this can be interpreted as a turning point in Hoffa's career. Hoffa rationalized his actions this way:
I think that he
[Tobin] used our relationship with me because I had refused to go on a request,
or on an order. When he ordered me to go to
Farrell Dobbs recalled it differently:
Now it is true that
Hoffa was among the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) goon squads
that Tobin sent into
circumstances, you got to admit Hoffa had just a little help, didn 't
he? The man exaggerates on this point. He exaggerates Hoffa's fast and
determined rise to power began—many think—with the betrayal of Farrell Dobbs
and the takeover of the rebellious
Dave Beck, who was elected General President of the International in 1952, took over a position he could not have achieved without Hoffa's support. But again, Hoffa has been accused of later trying to eliminate Beck by arranging, in 1957, to feed information on Beck to a Senate sub-committee holding hearings on corrupt union practices. Beck was later convicted of grand larceny and tax evasion and spent two and a half years in prison.
With Beck out of the way, Hoffa became General President of the Teamsters in 1957, climaxing a rise to power that would escalate contract benefits for the working teamster and, at the same time, plunge the union into corruption and scandal from which it has not yet recovered.
Hoffa held the position of General President of the International for thirteen years, even after he went to prison in 1967.
If Jimmy Hoffa was the end product of the violence and corruption that marked the history of America's labor movement, he was also a symbol of labor's victories and its power. Labor is an arena where corruption and idealism are part of the same tradition.
When John F. Kennedy was elected President in I960, he appointed his brother Robert as US Attorney General. Bobby had been on Hoffa's tail since he was Chief Counsel of Senator McClellan's committee, in the fifties, investigating crime in the labor movement. Now, Bobby and his brother continued their crusade to get organized crime out of organized labor. Hoffa became their prime target. Of course, organized big business cheered them on.
During the Kennedy Administration, Jimmy Hoffa found himself battling employers to put through the unique Master Freight Agreement and fighting just as hard to stay out of jail.
For Hoffa, the Kennedy years were punctuated by a continuing series of legal battles waged in courtrooms around the country. In the past, Hoffa had usually come out ahead in his brushes with the law. In 1957, he was acquitted on charges of Congressional bribery. Later, he was tried twice for wiretap conspiracy involving alleged spying on Teamster subordinates. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In the second, in 1958, Hoffa was acquitted. Charges of mail and wire fraud brought against Hoffa in 1960 were dropped.
In 1962, the Kennedy Administration brought a case against Hoffa in Nashville, Tennessee. Hoffa was charged with accepting illegal payments from employers. Once more, the government failed to make its charges stick. The case ended in a hung jury, split 7 to 5 in Hoffa's favor. But the stormy Nashville trial contained the seeds of further trouble for Jimmy Hoffa.
The government kept Hoffa and his associates under close surveillance throughout the Nashville trial. One Hoffa aide, Edward Grady Partin, was secretly acting as a government informer. The result was evidence that led to Hoffa's subsequent indictment on charges of tampering with the jury in an effort to fix the verdict in the Nashville trial.
This jury tampering case was tried in Chattanooga in 1964. Throughout the six-week trial, Hoffa and his attorneys complained bitterly about the government's tactics.
But the jury found Hoffa guilty and he was sentenced to eight years in Federal prison. It was a stunning setback for Jimmy and he protested vigorously that his conviction was unjust.
Within weeks after his Chattanooga conviction, Hoffa was back in court, again, this time in Chicago. He was charged with fraud in connection with as elaborate scheme to swindle money from the Union's Pension Fund.
Again, Hoffa was convicted. The judge added another five years imprisonment to the eight years Hoffa got at the Chattanooga trial On March 7, 1967, Hoffa was sent to the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The Kennedy Justice department had gotten its man!
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren called Hoffa's conviction "an affront to the quality and fairness of Federal law enforcement."
James Neal, the federal prosecutor in the Chattanooga trial who succeeded in nailing Hoffa said later:
In the last ten years, as I've gotten a little older, and hopefully a little wiser, I have some discomfort with the thought that if the Federal government pursues any man long enough and hard enough, it's very difficult for him to escape.
Hoffa refused to give up the Presidency of the union, appointing Frank Fitzsimmons, his General Vice-president, as caretaker. During the next four years, Hoffa had three parole hearings, all of which were rejected, partially because of his refusal to give up the Presidency. Finally, in June of 1971, Hoffa announced his retirement from the union—and, at about the same time, Fitzsimmons won election to the Presidency. This cleared the way for Fitzsimmons to take office. It also set the stage for Jimmy's release from prison.
President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence on December 23, 1971 with a restriction on his release. Hoffa left prison the same day.
Hoffa appealed the restriction on his commutation that barred him from union activity until 1980, and was awaiting Federal Court action. Hoffa claims that when he walked out of Lewisburg Penitentiary on December 23rd of 1971, he did not know about the restriction.
Hoffa explained it this way:
I found out about the restriction from a reporter we met at the airport. The prison didn't release news of the restriction to the press until in the afternoon. I had been released at . They knew that once I was outside of the gate, there was nothing I could do about the restriction. They were fearful that I would not accept the commutation if I knew that restriction was in there. I certainly would not have1. I would have been out of prison in 1974 without restriction.
To check out Hoffa's story, we went to the Federal Bureau of Prisons archives and dug up some documents.
Document 1: Conditions of Parole, with no
mention of a restriction, signed by James Riddle Hoffa on
Document 2: Restriction—addendum to
Hoffa was telling the truth.
Still, in Federal Court, Hoffa was unable to get rid of the restriction and immediately appealed to a higher court.
While Hoffa's fight continued to get the restriction off—the debate raged as to how the restriction got on.
The cast of characters in the controversy is drawn from former President Nixon's White House staff. The three apparent principals were all later involved in the Watergate scandal.
Some Hoffa partisans believe Charles Colson, once Special Counsel to President Nixon engineered the restriction. Colson left the White House for private law practice and immediately Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons hired his firm. Hoffa remained convinced that Colson did it.
I'm positively sure
that Colson had a hand in it, and I'm positively sure that he was the architect
of the language. And Colson did it to ingratiate himself with Fitzsimmons. And
in doing so, he got the job of representing the Teamsters. And Fitz did it, through Colson, to be able to keep the
presidency of the International
Frank Fitzsimmons, of course, denies Hoffa's allegations:
There is no truth whatsoever. And as far as Jimmy Hoffa is concerned when he makes that statement, he knows that he's a damned liar. He accuses Chuck Co/son and me of creating them restrictions. I didn 't know nothing about them restrictions, didn 't know anything about 'em until I read it in the newspapers.
Charles Colson spoke about the Hoffa restriction with us when we got to him two days before he, Colson, went to prison for Watergate related offenses. He spun the following:
The accusation has been made that Fitzsimmons and I cooked this up, some conspiracy, to keep Hojfa from coming back into the Teamsters. That's just plain malarkey.. .Fitzsimmons and I never discussed the restrictions on Hoffa's commutation. I advised Mr. Fitzsimmons, I think the day before Hoffa was to be released that he was going to be released under conditions that seemed to be in the best interest of the labor movement and the country at the time. I never told him what, what those restrictions were.
William Carlos Moore, former head of DRIVE—the Teamsters' political arm—said that he heard Fitzsimmons on the phone with Colson planning the restriction. Moore signed a sworn affidavit to that effect in US District Court.
Document: "Mr. Fitzsimmons...made an observation in substantially the following words: 'Chuck, Hoffa should be released from prison but I think it awfully important that a condition be placed on him that he not be free to seek office and to participate in the labor movement until after he has served his full sentence.'" William Carlos Moore further stated to us:
It became a kind of a standing ride with the administration, I'm talking about the Fitzsimmons administration, that let's get Hoffa out of jail, let s get the Hoffa people off our back, but let's restrict him so he cannot come back into the labor movement.
When ABC News Closeup: Hoffa, an investigative biography, was finished and ready for air, I wondered: What did I learn from my experience, probing the life of Jimmy
Certainly Hoffa was not a great labor leader. He might have been a great union leader, for a while. There is a difference. A union leader is pragmatic, working hard to get the best wages and working conditions for his membership. In my view, a true leader in the labor movement has a vision that transcends personal opportunism—a sense of the class struggle in all its ramifications—leaders like Eugene Debs and John L. Lewis.
Hoffa lost it early in his career—at the time of his betray of Farrell Dobbs in 1941, or before. When he agreed to go to Minneapolis with a gang of goons and take over Local 544 ousting Farrell Dobbs and the Dunne brothers, he morally accepted the immorality of the establishment. What did Hoffa say... ?
"I was just taking orders..."
Where have we heard that before?
Jimmy Hoffa betrayed his friend and mentor. Where do you go from there? Down the slippery slope. Before long, he was robbing his union members of their pension funds.
Yes, Hoffa was pursued relentlessly by prosecutorial hound dogs, as James Neal, Hoffa's prosecutor admitted. That could make any leader obsessive and push him over the edge. Maybe that's what it did to Jimmy.
Everybody asks the question—was Hoffa a gangster? If you have to ask it, the answer is, yes. Well, you can say, he adopted the mores of the employers in using hoodlums and gangsters to attain his ends. Not good enough.
Hoffa never had a snowball's chance of regaining the Presidency of the IBT. The mob was quite satisfied with the pliant Frank Fitzsimmons.
To appease the pro-Hoffa faction in the membership, they got Hoffa released from prison. They didn't expect him to fight that hard to get his job back. They didn't know my friend Jimmy.
Jimmy should have retired and spent his winters in Florida and summers up "at the lake", as he said he could. Instead, he made a nuisance of himself.
The sad part of the story—rumor has it that his foster son, Chuckie O'Brien, was the one to lead Hoffa into the trap. It was Chuckie who brought Hoffa to the parking lot of Machus Red Fox Restaurant where he was scheduled to meet with Anthony Giacalone, a reputed captain of organized crime in Detroit.
So long, Jimmy. It was good to know ya'...