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We Shouldn’t Be Nostalgic for Jimmy Hoffa

At a time of historic working-class weakness, it’s tempting to watch the portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and long for similar labor leadership today. But while Hoffa negotiated contracts that improved the lives of millions, his corruption and autocratic leadership also paved the way for the Teamsters’ decline.

American labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamster's, testifying at a hearing into labor rackets, August 11, 1958. Keystone / Getty

Nearly forty-five years after his 1975 disappearance outside the Machus Red Fox restaurant in a Detroit suburb, labor leader Jimmy Hoffa is sparking renewed interest, thanks in large part to Martin Scorsese’s latest movie The Irishman. Few have embodied the image of the tough guy “labor boss” more than Hoffa, who headed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) from 1958 to 1967, when he went to federal prison on bribery and jury tampering charges.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his criminal notoriety, some seek to rehabilitate Hoffa, arguing that “he was one of the most brilliant, effective and ambitious union leaders in American history,” even if he was a little crooked. Ethical lapses aside, he was a staunch defender of workers’ interests and never stopped fighting for them. This earned him the enduring loyalty and admiration of millions of Teamster members.

It’s true that there is much to admire about Hoffa, particularly his organizing acumen and negotiating skill. Hoffa genuinely cared about his members. His actions improved the lives of millions through strong contracts and solid benefits. Compared to some of the empty suits who pass for labor leaders today, like disgraced former UAW President Gary Jones, a tough, strategic leader like Hoffa looks pretty good.

The problem is that Hoffa’s shortcomings weren’t just character flaws we can overlook. His personal corruption and “tough guy” leadership style weakened the union he claimed to care about and set the stage for decades of union decline. It is not a model of union leadership we need today.

Hoffa’s Admirable Side

While Hoffa’s mob ties got most of the headlines and the Hollywood screen time, he was much more than a mob associate. His masterful negotiating and organizing skills helped to transform the Teamsters into one of the largest and most powerful unions in North America. Teamster membership exploded from 146,000 members in 1935 to 1.5 million in 1957, just prior to Hoffa’s taking office, and continued to grow up to 2 million by 1976, the year after his disappearance.

The core of that growth was the National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA), Hoffa’s crowning achievement. First consolidated in 1964 out of several regional agreements, at its height it covered more than 400,000 workers at 16,000 trucking companies. This meant that, by the early 1970s, local and intercity trucking in the United States was almost completely unionized.

Not only did this dramatically improve the wages, benefits, and working conditions of those covered under the NMFA, but it gave Hoffa and the Teamsters control over a vital sector of the US economy. Virtually no goods could move without Teamster labor, and Hoffa used that to his advantage in negotiations.

While Hoffa deserves a great deal of credit for crafting the NMFA, he did not come up with the idea. In the West, an enterprising if venal union leader out of Seattle named Dave Beck had been stitching together a regional master agreement since the 1930s. And in the Midwest, a band of Trotskyist Teamsters radiated outward from their base in Minneapolis, using innovative techniques to organize over-the-road trucking.

They famously cut their teeth on the 1934 strike that made Minneapolis a union town, and having consolidated their power in the Twin Cities, they sought to project their vision of militant industrial unionism throughout the region. So successful were they that they won over many Teamster officials across the region to their organizing campaign, if not their ideology. Teamster general president Daniel Tobin even hired one of the Minneapolis leaders, Farrell Dobbs, as a general organizer.

It was Dobbs who served as an early mentor to the young Hoffa, then an organizer working for Detroit Local 299. He appreciated Dobbs’s strategic thinking and militancy, although he had little use for his politics. Hoffa ultimately turned on his mentor, serving as a loyal foot soldier when Tobin shipped Hoffa to Minneapolis in 1941 to help dismantle the Trotskyists’ organization there. But he never forgot the lessons that Dobbs taught him. Years later, Hoffa described Dobbs as “a very far-seeing individual … the draftsman and architect of our road operations.”

But it was Hoffa who took the blueprints that Dobbs (and Beck) drew up and created a truly national freight agreement. Doing so required tremendous negotiating skill. Reading accounts of the complex negotiations among thousands of trucking employers and hundreds of Teamster locals, you have to be impressed by Hoffa’s handiwork.

Although he had little formal education, he knew the economics of the freight industry better than the employers, and used that knowledge to get them on board. Sometimes this involved showing them that unionizing would reduce the cutthroat competition that plagued the low-margin freight industry. At other times, it involved playing large employers off against small, or certain employers in one city against another. Tactically, it involved a mix of militancy and accommodation: militant strikes against some employers, sweetheart deals and payoffs for others.

Perhaps more impressive was the work Hoffa did to get his own local leaders on board with the NMFA. Compared to other unions, the Teamsters remain decentralized even today, but before Hoffa it was difficult to speak of the IBT as a national entity. Instead, it was a collection of regional fiefdoms. For Hoffa to forge a national agreement, he had to cajole and coerce this disparate group of labor barons.

Complicating matters was the fact that, in order to create a national agreement, Hoffa had to get employers to dramatically increase wages in some regions, while getting union leaders in larger cities to restrain their demands to bring them down to the national level. To do so, he intervened skillfully in local disputes, supporting rank-and-file insurgencies when it worked to his advantage, as in Los Angeles, and crushing them when it did not, as in Philadelphia.

The resulting master agreement, while not standardized, nonetheless raised standards in the trucking industry nationwide, transforming an unstable, brutally exploitative job into a more stable, decent-paying line of work. Furthermore, Hoffa negotiated employer-funded pensions that guaranteed Teamsters a secure, dignified retirement. And unlike many labor leaders today, Hoffa was not shy about striking, making effective use of them to resolve grievances and get employers to agree to his terms. As a result, Teamster power and membership grew during his time in office.

Hoffa’s Downside

But for all his negotiating prowess and dedication, Hoffa’s leadership style came at a long-term cost. His personal corruption and tolerance for corruption in others not only opened the union to direct mob influence, but to self-dealing and cozy relations between union officials and employers more broadly. Meanwhile, his personalist, autocratic leadership silenced opposition and elevated loyal yes men in the union.

After Hoffa’s disappearance, power devolved to a layer of corrupt feudal barons, far more interested in lining their pockets and protecting their turf than in fighting for workers. They proved singularly incapable of responding to the challenges of deregulation, employer consolidation, and the anti-union offensive starting in the 1970s. The result was union decline.

For some, including many Teamster members at the time, Hoffa’s corruption and autocracy were small prices to pay compared to the good he did, or even necessary trade-offs given the environment in which he had to operate. Neither is true. While we can appreciate Hoffa’s skill and dedication as a union leader, we must also recognize that the Teamster degradation and decline that followed him was because of his legacy, not a deviation from it.

Corruption

Hoffa’s corruption not only allowed him to enrich himself at members’ expense, but also directly undermined union power. Standard accounts of the trials that landed Hoffa in jail focus on the fact that he was charged with jury tampering, which makes it sound like he was convicted on a technicality. But it’s important to understand the crimes he committed to get put on trial in the first place.

One case concerned Hoffa’s efforts to skim hundreds of thousands of (1950s-era) dollars from the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund via a shady Florida real estate development in which he maintained a secret interest. Simply put, he was using members’ retirement money for his own personal gain.

That kind of self-dealing, while illegal, might seem excusable in light of the good that Hoffa did for Teamster members. One could rationalize that sure, he was on the take, but so was everyone else, and at least he fought hard for his members. But the second case undermined even the idea that Hoffa fought for his members.

That case concerned a company known as Test Fleet. It was a car-hauling company that Hoffa and fellow Detroit Teamster official Bert Brennan incorporated in Tennessee in 1949, using their wives’ maiden names to avoid detection. Test Fleet offered its services to another company, Commercial Carriers, that was dealing with a wildcat strike of its Teamster-represented owner-operators.

Once Test Fleet took over the car-hauling operations, Commercial Carriers canceled its owner-operators’ hauling leases, breaking the strike and throwing Teamster members out of work. In effect, Hoffa created a company to scab on his own members. Adding insult to injury, some of those now-unemployed drivers appealed to Hoffa to get their jobs back, unaware that he was directly responsible for their predicament. Unsurprisingly, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the Hoffas and Brennans made $125,000 — again, in 1950s dollars — off their initial $4,000 investment.

The jury tampering charge arose out of the Test Fleet case, when Hoffa was convicted of bribing several jurors to get a hung jury. On its own, one might forgive the tampering as necessary hardball tactics to fight government prosecutors bent on silencing a working-class tribune. This is certainly how Hoffa and his supporters portrayed it. And to be fair, it is plausible to think that many of those prosecuting Hoffa, particularly the members of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa Squad,” were more concerned about Hoffa’s control over strategic sectors of the economy than they were about bribery and corruption.

But whatever their motives, Hoffa’s personal corruption made their jobs easier. He did the Teamsters no favors by using members’ money for private gain and actively undermining union solidarity.

Personalized Leadership

As colorful as his corruption may have been, it was Hoffa’s leadership style that had more nefarious long-term consequences for the union.

The problem was not that he centralized leadership. It would have been impossible for Hoffa to transform the Teamsters into a national powerhouse and negotiate a master agreement for the freight industry had the union remained fragmented and decentralized. The problem was that he personalized leadership.

Hoffa famously worked around the clock, involving himself in the smallest union matters, going so far as to giving out his phone number and taking collect calls from individual members to handle their problems. Unlike many union leaders, he did not ensconce himself at union headquarters; he often ventured out to local union halls, freight terminals, and picket lines to meet with members.

We can certainly admire Hoffa’s work ethic and dedication, and it’s understandable that his brand of hands-on leadership would generate steadfast loyalty from those who benefited. But Hoffa’s hard work was based in a vision of the union that conflated building Teamster power with deepening and extending his own personal power.

In the same way that Louis XIV proclaimed that “l’état, c’est moi” (I am the state), so too did Hoffa essentially declare that “le syndicat, c’est moi” (I am the union). We see this depicted in The Irishman when Al Pacino’s Hoffa is trying to reclaim the Teamster presidency after being released from prison. When asked why he wants to be president again, his only response is that “it’s my union.”

Sometimes, this did in fact build union power, as when he concentrated his power and tamed regional Teamster fiefdoms to establish the master freight agreement. Other times, it just helped Hoffa. Such was the case when he allied with New York mobster John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi to charter several “paper locals” — locals with no members, but controlled by Dioguardi — to gain control of New York Joint Council 16 in 1956. This gave Hoffa a foothold in the East as he consolidated his power on his way to the presidency.

Some view actions like these, along with countless other employer payoffs and internal power maneuvers that Hoffa engineered, as evidence of his supreme pragmatism, his willingness to do whatever it took to get a deal. But in consolidating power in his person, Hoffa undermined the strength of the union he fought so hard to build.

That’s because his autocratic, personalist leadership reinforced the idea that he, the strong leader, could fix workers’ problems — not workers themselves. It may have served Hoffa well, especially in the context of a highly regulated and fragmented trucking industry where he could play small carriers against each other, and they in turn could pass along the contract costs to their customers. But it was not a viable long-term strategy, especially in a context of industry deregulation and consolidation, with Teamster leaders following Hoffa who decidedly lacked his skill and charisma.

Patronage and Unaccountable Leadership

It’s tempting to see the decline that followed Hoffa’s disappearance as a problem of leadership. Clearly the Teamster presidents who followed him were bland and spineless by comparison, at least until Ron Carey. It’s possible that had Hoffa returned to power, he might have mounted a more effective response to the crises that both unions and the transportation industry faced in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the real question to ask is why the leadership that followed Hoffa was so lackluster. And the responsibility for that lies squarely with Hoffa himself.

In consolidating his power, Hoffa created a patronage network within the union, whereby loyalty was prized above all. At the same time, he implemented structural reforms to insulate Teamster officials from member accountability. Those who toed Hoffa’s line reaped the benefits, while those who did not were crushed.

The linchpin of Hoffa’s patronage network was the system of multiple salaries and pensions that he created for Teamster officials. At the 1961 IBT convention, the first where Hoffa presided, delegates approved the creation of the “Family Plan,” a generous officers-only plan, as well as an “Affiliates Plan” for all staff affiliated with the union. Officers could often draw on both as they would hold union staff positions on top of their elected positions.

Delegates also modified Article 5 of the constitution to allow International officers to draw salaries from subordinate bodies, legitimizing the practice of collecting multiple salaries for what were often no-show jobs. Hoffa used these multiple pensions and salaries as powerful incentives to keep officials in line, as he held the power both to dispense and withdraw them. They served as the glue that bound the Teamster bureaucracy together.

While patronage drew the officialdom closer to Hoffa, his constitutional reforms insulated officials from member accountability. Among the most important, local union officers and business agents were automatically named delegates to the International convention, getting rid of nearly all member-elected delegates. More stringent meeting attendance and “good standing” requirements made it harder for rank-and-file members to run for office. The General Executive Board was given the unilateral power to merge locals, transfer members between locals, issue separate charters for groups of members, and merge with other unions. The General President was given the power to impose trusteeships at will, exercise almost unlimited control over intermediate bodies like Area Conferences, and set the order of business for the international convention.

This leadership structure allowed a layer of unaccountable opportunists and yes-men to entrench themselves in the union. Once Hoffa was gone, they were the ones left in charge — people like future presidents Frank Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams, and Jackie Presser. They shared Hoffa’s penchant for patronage and self-dealing, but lacked his militancy, charisma, or strategic acumen. They were singularly unprepared, indeed uninterested, in tackling the challenges of trucking deregulation and industry consolidation that ravaged the freight industry and effectively dismantled Hoffa’s NMFA.

Mob Influence

The fact of Hoffa’s mob ties is not in dispute. Nor is the extent of mob control in the union. The dispute surrounds the degree to which mob associations weakened the Teamsters, or whether it was a hard-nosed acceptance of the realities of what it took to operate in the amoral “jungle” of the early- and mid-twentieth century transportation and warehouse industries.

Hoffa placed himself in the latter camp. “Twenty years ago [around 1939]” Hoffa declared, “the employers had all the hoodlums working for them as strike-breakers. Now we’ve got a few and everybody’s screaming.”

It’s also the Hollywood take. The 1978 Sylvester Stallone movie F.I.S.T., loosely based on Hoffa’s life, shows union members teaming up with local mobsters to “convince” the company, Consolidated Trucking, to unionize. And Danny DeVito, director of the 1992 biopic Hoffa, said of his mob ties, “Sure he knew them. Sure he did business with them. But did they control him? Not at all. What controlled Hoffa was his desire to do anything to help the people in his union.”

The reality of mob influence in the Teamsters was quite different. While it’s true that some Teamster shops were organized with mob muscle, overall the mob’s goal in getting involved with unions was to benefit the mob, not the members.

They got what they wanted: hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent loans from the Central States Pension Fund (known as “the Mafia’s bank”), payoffs from employers in exchange for lax or nonexistent contract enforcement, “ghost employee” arrangements to pad associates’ wallets, the ability to extort local small businesses by threatening to withhold deliveries, and more.

If actual working Teamsters benefited from these arrangements, it was purely incidental. And those members who dared question these cozy arrangements literally put their lives at risk. None of this helped the people in Hoffa’s union. Instead, it undermined their ability to hold their union leaders accountable and win better contracts.

Not a Road Map for Labor’s Future

Hoffa’s reputation as one of the great labor leaders of the twentieth century is well-deserved. He was a tireless fighter, a talented organizer, and a masterful negotiator. But this does not negate his corruption, nor the long-term damage he did to the Teamsters by mistaking his personal power for the union’s power. He set the stage for the weakness and decline that followed him.

It makes little sense to view Hoffa as a model for today’s labor movement. He was willing to confront employers, but he was also happy to cozy up to them when it suited his purposes. He did fight for many members’ material interests, but he also sold many out. And although he personally may have stayed close to the members, the union he created continued putting officers’ interests above the members’ long after he was gone.

The Teamsters provide some important, understudied examples for those seeking to revive labor’s fortunes today. But they have less to do with Hoffa and more with the tradition of his organizing mentor, Farrell Dobbs. That tradition, of patient shop-floor organizing combined with creative strategy and a broader social vision, was the force that animated the 1997 UPS strike, one of the largest and most successful strikes in US labor history. It’s a tradition that understands that the union’s power does not come from a brash, wily negotiator. It comes from the members.