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Jimmy Hoffa

president of the Teamsters Union

Jimmy Hoffa

James Riddle Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, on February 14, 1913, the son of a coal miner who died in 1921. His mother had to work to support herself and her four children, and moved the family to Detroit, Michigan, in 1924. He himself dropped out of school at some point (exactly when is uncertain) to help support the family, eventually working on a loading dock for a Detroit grocery store chain.

Hoffa first became directly involved in the labor movement while working on the loading dock, by orchestrating a strike and helping his co-workers get a better contract (in 1932). His bargaining chip was a shipment of strawberries, which the workers refused to unload until they had a new deal. He joined the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters in 1933, and became president of the Detroit chapter in 1937. His efforts to expand the union's membership and negotiate better contracts for his fellows led to him becoming vice president of the national organization in 1952. He became president of the Teamsters on October 4, 1957, replacing Dave Beck, who had been convicted on charges related to his union activities.

Hoffa being congratulated after his election as president of the Teamsters
Hoffa elected president of the Teamsters

As president of the Teamsters, Hoffa continued to work hard to expand the number of workers who were protected by union contracts, and under his leadership the union's membership rose to include more than two million workers. His greatest achievement was the 1964 National Master Freight Agreement, which united more than 400,000 over-the-road drivers under one contract.

In addition to being a tough labor negotiator, Hoffa was also an advocate for civil rights. He refused to condone segregated local unions, even if it meant losing organizing campaigns in the South. He also promoted political activism in the union and strongly encouraged workers to educate themselves about political issues and to vote.

While Hoffa was building up the Teamsters, both the F.B.I. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy were busy looking for evidence that his union (and personal) successes had help from organized crime. Although he was indicted multiple times, the Justice Department failed to convict Hoffa until March 1964, when he was convicted of bribery and jury tampering in connection with a 1962 federal trial for conspiracy. In July of 1964 he was convicted of misusing funds from the union's pension plan. Hoffa spent three years appealing his convictions, to no avail. On March 7, 1967, he entered the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Hoffa being escorted into the Lewisburg Penitentiary
Hoffa being escorted into the Lewisburg Penitentiary

In 1971, President Richard Nixon agreed to commute Hoffa's 8-to-13-year sentence, on the condition that Hoffa not hold a leadership position in the union until 1980. Hoffa accepted the commutation, but began fighting the leadership ban in court almost immediately upon his release.

On July 30, 1975, Hoffa left his home for a meeting with reputed crime bosses at the Macchus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield, Michigan. Although his car was later found in the restaurant parking lot, Hoffa was never seen again. He was declared legally dead in 1982. He was survived by his wife, Josephine (nee Poszywak), whom he had married in 1936, and two children, Barbara and James P. James P. Hoffa became president of the Teamsters Union in 1998.


See Also

Robert F. Kennedy
President Richard Nixon

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The Robinson Library >> Trade and Labor Unions

This page was last updated on September 19, 2018.