The Complicated Labour Legacy of Jimmy Hoffa

It’s Valentine’s Day
and though couples everywhere will be gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes,
we know there’s only one thing people really have on their minds: Jimmy Hoffa.

Hoffa had a strong and
polarizing personality – some love him and some hate him. Whether one is firmly
on the side that believes Hoffa did a great disservice to the Labour Movement
or in the camp convinced of his enduring value to the Labour Movement, the
undisputable fact is that Hoffa had a profound impact on the history and
direction of organized labour, both in the US and elsewhere.

On this day in 1913,
James R. Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana. Hoffa was only seven years-old when
he lost his father to a lung disease caused by poor working conditions in the
coal mines. After his father’s death, Hoffa’s mother moved the family to
Detroit, Michigan. It was here that Hoffa began his union activities.

When he was seventeen
years-old, Hoffa worked at Kroger Grocery and
Baking Company where he unloaded shipments of produce. His wage was 32 cents an
hour. The job had a couple of major downsides: (i) the workers worked 12-hour
shifts but were only paid during the times when they were actually unloading.
Much of the job was waiting for another shipment to come in and the workers
were unpaid during this time. (ii) A harsh foreman who liked to abuse his power
and who seemed to enjoy both firing and threatening to fire workers[1].

In 1931, the foreman’s penchant for
abusing his power was on display in full force when he fired two workers for going
to a food cart for their dinner. For Hoffa and the other workers, this was the
last abuse they could bear. Together with some of the other workers, Hoffa
organized a work stoppage just when a delivery of fresh fruit arrived.
that the fruit would spoil if the strike persisted, management quickly gave in
and agreed to meet and negotiate with Hoffa and the other leaders of the strike
the next day.

The subsequent meetings with
management showed Hoffa to be a skilled negotiator. He successfully negotiated
a wage increase of 13 cents per hour for the workers and obtained a guarantee
from management that the workers would receive at least half a day’s pay. Most
importantly, management agreed to recognize the union[2].

Emboldened by this success Hoffa
went on to incorporate Kroger’s workers into a local of the union he would one
day head – the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). He became an
organizer for the IBT and, at only 28 years-old, Hoffa was elected vice
president of the union. Later, in 1957, he officially became president of the

During his tenure as
president of the IBT much was made of Hoffa’s association with known mafia
members. Hoffa didn’t try to hide these connections and often used his mafia
association to intimidate and to prevent interference with the
rights of IBT members[4].
Unfortunately for Hoffa, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., then Chief Investigator of the Rackets Committee for the United States Senate
was cracking down on organized crime[5].
Hoffa was suspected of misappropriating union pension funds, among other
things, and was the subject of several federal investigations. Charged with
violating a provision of the notoriously anti-labour, Labour Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), Hoffa went to trial
in 1962. The trial concluded with a hung jury.

This didn’t end
Hoffa’s legal woes, however. In 1964 he was convicted of bribing jury members
during the 1962 trial[6]
and, in 1967, he began serving a 13-year prison sentence[7].
He was released in 1971 when President Nixon commuted his sentence[8].Four
years later, in 1975, Hoffa disappeared. He was declared legally dead in 1982[9].

Hoffa was a
complicated man who left an equally complicated legacy. Opinion will likely
always be split over whether his involvement with the labour movement was
beneficial or detrimental. He was certainly a big personality. If nothing else,
Hoffa made the Teamsters a household name and brought labour issues to the
attention of the general public in way that hasn’t been seen since.

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