Hoffa, James Riddle ("Jimmy")

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HOFFA, James Riddle ("Jimmy")

(b. 14 February 1913 in Brazil, Indiana; d. c. 30 July 1975), powerful and effective trade union leader with gangster connections; after a scheduled meeting with the Mafia, he disappeared in 1975 and was declared "presumed dead" in 1982.

Before his name became associated with organized crime, Hoffa started out life in an ordinary way. In fact, he had fairly humble beginnings. His father, John Cleveland Hoffa, was a coal driller; his mother, Viola Riddle, supported her four children after her husband's death in 1920 by working as a radiator cap polisher.

All that changed when the Hoffa family moved from Indiana to Detroit. After his father's death, Hoffa had to help support the family. He stopped going to school after reaching the ninth grade and started working as a department store stock boy. In 1930 he became a freight handler for the Kroger grocery chain. That job was pivotal because it set Hoffa on the path that put him in the center of controversy for the rest of his life. He organized a successful warehouseman strike against Kroger just as a shipment of strawberries was arriving. Soon he was inextricably tied to the labor movement.

In 1934 Hoffa brought his four coworkers, the "Strawberry Boys," into the International Brotherhood of Team-sters, the largest union in the United States. In 1935 he became president of the local Teamsters chapter. While helping nonunion workers, Hoffa met Josephine Poszywak in a laundry workers' picket line and married her in 1936. The couple had two children. By 1937 Hoffa was entrenched in Teamsters affairs and under the tutelage of Farrell Dobbs, who had helped the Teamsters more than triple their membership in just five years.

Union activities were dangerous in those days, and Hoffa quickly learned how to play for high stakes. Soon Hoffa was attacking those who threatened his power base. He used goon squads, or armed troops of gangsters, to enforce his will. As time went on, Hoffa expanded his power by moving further from the realm of labor representation and into the world of racketeering.

On his way to the position of power he enjoyed in the 1960s, Hoffa developed a habit of using violence to further his ends. John McClellan unwittingly helped Hoffa reach his pinnacle of power when he summoned Dave Beck, then the Teamsters' president, to his U.S. Senate committee. Beck, unable to say much without incriminating himself, was convicted of grand larceny in 1957, and Hoffa's way was clear to secure the Teamsters' top spot.

Hoffa's activities did not stop short of the law, but somehow he always managed to skirt the consequences. During the hearings that ruined Beck, Hoffa was indicted for trying to bribe someone to spy on the McClellan committee staff, but the indictment did not lead to a conviction. Hoffa was acquitted and continued to secure his power base.

As the Teamsters' president, Hoffa was quick to edge out the competition from nonunion drivers. Teamster members enjoyed higher wages than ever before. In 1964 Hoffa achieved his longtime goal of securing for the Teamsters the first national contract in the trucking industry. During the early 1960s he reached the heights of success, but he was about to fall.

The problem was that Hoffa had led the Teamsters to greatness through strong-arm tactics. An economics professor who saw the Teamsters up close in the 1960s wrote, "As recently as 1962, I heard him order the beating of a man 3,000 miles away, and on another occasion, I heard him instruct his cadre on precisely how to ambush non-union truck drivers with gunfire … to frighten them, not to kill."

All these activities attracted attention. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was certain that Hoffa was involved in organized crime, and he investigated Hoffa relentlessly. Kennedy believed Hoffa was engaged in criminal activities because the mob was working closely with the Teamsters; organized crime figures even held positions of union leadership. Reportedly, a Teamsters' local in Detroit was not involved in union activities but was actually a headquarters for drug dealing. These illegal practices kept Kennedy in pursuit of Hoffa, and Hoffa was said to have murder contracts out on Kennedy as well as on his brother John, the president of the United States. Hoffa is said to have been delighted at each Kennedy assassination.

Hoffa also attracted the enmity of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It was obvious that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted Hoffa behind bars, but Hoover so disliked Kennedy and vice versa that the two never joined forces against Hoffa. This may have helped Hoffa stay out of jail; in any case, Hoffa was an expert at avoiding the consequences of his actions. In 1962 Hoffa was tried for taking a million-dollar bribe to ensure labor peace, but he eluded sentencing. Then, in 1964, the same year Hoffa realized the Teamsters' national contract, his luck changed and he was convicted of conspiracy, fraud, and jury tampering and sent to jail.

Even so, Hoffa remained president of the Teamsters. He appealed his case and managed to stay out of jail for a few years, but in 1967 he was sent to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to serve thirteen years, but President Richard Nixon pardoned him in 1971. According to the terms of Hoffa's pardon, he was not supposed to participate in union leadership until 1980, but he secretly continued to exercise power with the Teamsters. Meanwhile, Hoffa went to court in an effort to invalidate the restrictions set on his pardon; but even though he did not win in court, he continued his involvement with the union. He also wrote an autobiography, Hoffa: The Real Story (1975).

On 30 July 1975, after last being seen in a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Hoffa disappeared. He was legally declared dead on 8 December 1982. Most people were convinced that his untimely disappearance and probable death were related to his ties with organized crime. His family wanted answers. In 1987 Hoffa's daughter, Barbara Crancer, a court judge in St. Louis, sued the government unsuccessfully for access to the Hoffa investigation files. In 2001 the FBI found DNA evidence that Hoffa had been in the vehicle of his friend Charles (Chuckie O'Brien), indicating that possibly O'Brien knew something about Hoffa's disappearance. Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa, who also became a Teamsters president, was convinced that O'Brien was involved in his father's probable death. Still looking for justice twenty-six years after his father's disappearance, James P. Hoffa pleaded for anyone with information to come forward.

As notorious in death as he was in life, Hoffa lives in American memory as a tough bargainer with gangster connections who kept organized labor alive.

Numerous books have been written about Hoffa, including James Clay, Hoffa! Ten Angels Swearing (1965); Ralph C. James and Estelle Dinerstein James, Hoffa and the Teamsters: A Study of Union Power (1965); Walter Sheridan, The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa (1972); Dan E. Moldea, The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians, and the Mob (1978); and Arthur A. Sloane, Hoffa (1991). An article on Hoffa is in American National Biography, vol. 10 (1999). An obituary is in Time (11 Aug. 1975). The furor over Hoffa's disappearance had not died down when Editor and Publisher (24 Sept. 2001) reported that the Detroit Free Press had sued the FBI for refusing access to the files from the Hoffa investigation.

A. E. Schulthies