Today in 1975, James Riddle Hoffa disappeared from the parking lot of a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan restaurant. Thus began the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa, the man who became the face of union labor in the United States for two decades. Today, as many questions remained unanswered with regard to Hoffa's fate as did on this day 32 years ago.
Hoffa was born in February, 1913 in Brazil, Indiana, a small farming town in west-central Indiana. He dropped out of school early and became the family's breadwinner after the death of his father. He found work in Lake Orion, Michigan in a tough warehouse, the place where he would first earn his reputation as street fighter and a man willing to stand up to management. Strong unions were still a new concept in the United States; only a generation before, the Pullman strike near Chicago had resulted in the deaths of 13 workers when President Grover Cleveland used the Army to break the work stoppage. Even in the 1920's and 30's, large corporations such as Ford Motor Company were still using hired thugs to prevent the formation of unions inside their gates. Thus, it was not at all unusual when Hoffa lost his job at the warehouse. But greener pastures awaited: he was soon hired as a union organizer for Local 299 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Hoffa's life would be forever changed.
In the mid-1930's, Hoffa was running Local 299 and was in charge of organizing efforts throughout the Detroit, Michigan area. He made friends during his time in the city, friends whose loyalty came at a steep price. They called themselves by various names; the police called them organized crime. Hoffa's first criminal conviction came as a result of his relationship with local mobsters---he had used them to intimidate a local grocery store chain whose owners were hostile to union labor. For this, Hoffa paid only a fine. But as time went by and his responsibilities grew, the cost of his relationships would grow exponentially.
By the early 1950's, the Teamsters had organized truckers, firefighters, dock and warehouse workers and many other laborers nationwide. Dave Beck, the head of the union at that time, was convicted of bribery charges in 1957 and was sent to prison. Hoffa rose to the presidency of the union and immediately went to work making his long-imagined plans into reality. In 1964, he managed to bring all Teamsters truck drivers in North America (which was most of them) under one contract known as the national master freight agreement. This was unprecedented and gave the Teamsters incredible power with regard to the economy of the United States. Hoffa tried to bring other transport industries, such as the airlines, under the same agreement. The federal government saw this as a dangerous move, since a Teamsters strike could bring the nation to a standstill if all transport industries negotiated as one body.
The Teamsters brought economic gain, better working conditions and health insurance to many workers, but they also brought corruption on a huge scale. Some of the East Coast locals were run outright by members of the Mafia, while others were controlled indirectly. Kickback schemes and sweetheart deals were common and even expected if one were to run a company with Teamsters labor. The Teamster's pension fund was borrowed against again and again to bankroll the construction of Mob-owned casinos in Las Vegas. It is doubtful that the boom Las Vegas experienced in the 1960's would have been possible without money from the Teamsters. Most local union members had no idea that their dues were helping to make professional criminals millions of dollars.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both worked to limit the power of the Teamsters. The union's corruption was well-known in political circles, but big money can buy powerful friends and so Hoffa and his people were hard to touch. But in the same way Hoffa had powerful friends, he also had powerful enemies. Thus, it was only a matter of time before someone gave the US Justice Department a call.
Who made the call, or if there even was a call, remains unknown, but one thing is certain: federal authorities were tipped off to the attempted bribery of a grand juror who was hearing a Teamsters-related case in the early 1960's. Hoffa was connected to the crime directly and was convicted of attempted bribery in 1964. He received a sentence of 15 years, but was released by President Richard Nixon in December, 1971 with the understanding that he was not to participate in union activities for 10 years.
Hoffa was not one to be sidelined for very long. He planned to sue the federal government over his restriction from union activities and was very public about his intention to regain control of the Teamsters. Thus was his situation when he planned to meet two Mafia figures, Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano, at Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Witnesses saw him at 2:30PM on July 30, 1975 in parking lot of the eatery, but he never entered. He was never seen again.
Jimmy Hoffa's ultimate fate will never be known. He was declared legally dead in 1982, but his body has never been recovered. Various Mafia members have claimed over the years to know where Hoffa's remains are located, but no investigation has ever turned up anything.
Hoffa left behind two children. His daughter, Barbara Crancer, is a judge in St. Louis, Missouri. His son, James, is the head of the Teamster's Union today. As of 2004, the union claims almost one and a half million members.
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