Labor's love lost

A new biography paints a more sympathetic Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa disappeared 26 years ago - presumably murdered by the Mob - and his remains have yet to be discovered. Theories still abound as to what became of the pugnacious labor leader who rose from hardscrabble beginnings in Detroit to head the 2 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

When Hoffa was released from Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in 1972 at the behest of President Nixon, the charismatic labor boss had every intention of regaining control of the Teamsters. Two years later, he appeared in federal court to appeal the conditions of his clemency that banned him from union activities until 1980.

Organized crime, which had gained control of several Teamster locals, was not going to tolerate Hoffa's return. As the bring-back-Hoffa movement gained momentum in early 1975, he was headed for a collision.

So says Thaddeus Russell, who briefly recounts Hoffa's fateful meeting at a suburban Detroit restaurant with Tony Provenzano, president of a New Jersey local and captain of the infamous Genovese crime family, and Anthony Giacalone, leader of Detroit's largest criminal organization.

Ostensibly, the gangsters wanted to discuss a power-sharing agreement with Hoffa. After telephoning his wife to say that he had been stood up, Hoffa was never heard from again.

Russell dispenses with these fascinating details in a few pages. He's more concerned with charting Hoffa's ascendance as America's most dynamic labor boss, whose determination to deliver for his members made him a mythic figure among them.

Hoffa's credo was simple: Do whatever it takes to organize workers and improve their pay and benefits. If that meant busting heads and blowing up vehicles, then he and his toughs didn't hesitate to do so.

These brutal tactics, the author argues, should be viewed in the context of the times when companies routinely brought in goons to breach picket lines and break strikes.

Russell maintains that Hoffa has been denigrated by labor historians because "he scorned the attempts of radicals and 'labor statesmen' to bring worker's organizations into the political and managerial classes."

Hoffa's single-minded efforts to improve the material standing of his members made him an icon among them. Years later, when they learned that he was siphoning money from their pension fund, they tended to forgive him. After the martyred labor leader was sent to prison, a long-distance driver from New York said, "Hoffa did steal from us, but he also gave us a hell of a lot."

Hoffa's demonization was prompted in part, Russell says, by Detroit newspapers that railed against his power to sever the city's lifeline.

But his downfall was ordained by John Kennedy's election and the appointment of brother Bobby as attorney general. Bobby first clashed with Hoffa as counsel to a Senate committee investigating labor racketeering.

Incensed by Hoffa's beating a bribery rap, Kennedy resolved to get the cocky labor boss. As attorney general, he created a special unit of 16 lawyers and 30 FBI agents to nail Hoffa. Kennedy's persistence paid off after six years of litigation. Convicted of jury tampering in 1964, Hoffa was hauled into court a second time several weeks later for looting the pension fund and found guilty. Sentenced concurrently to 13 years, he remained free on appeal until March of 1967, when he began serving time.

Russell's sentiments are clearly with his subject. "To corporatists and moralistic liberals, Hoffa was the Antichrist of greed. But to the Teamster rank and file, the government repression that ultimately crushed his power made him a martyr for the fulfillment of their dreams."

Clearly, Hoffa was a conflicted man, far more complex than the myths he inspired. In these pages, he emerges from his violent environment as a more sympathetic figure for sticking to his principles.

Alan Miller, an editorial writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune, used to work at The Detroit News.

Out of the Jungle:

Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class

By Thaddeus Russell Alfred A. Knopf 272 pp., $26

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