Jimmy Hoffa testifies

Image courtesy of George Washington University

Hoffa Disappearance Anniversary
Still Raises Questions

| published August 2, 2016 |

By Kevin Robbie and Alan Clanton, Thursday Review contributors

July 30, 2016, marked the forty-first anniversary of the disappearance of James Riddle Hoffa, a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the labor organization’s president for more than a decade, from 1958 to 1971, and arguably one of the most influential labor leaders of the 20th century.

In the several years prior to his infamous disappearance in the summer of 1975, Hoffa’s star dimmed significantly. Still, he was regarded as a legendary figure in the American labor movement for which he had established a powerful legacy and over which he held considerable sway. At the height of his power, the Teamsters boasted a membership of well over one million.

Hoffa has been long presumed kidnapped on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, when he vanished from the parking lot of a roadside diner in Michigan. He was finally declared legally dead in absentia in 1982 by the courts, a rare instance in which death was established by authorities despite the presence of any evidence, or, for that matter, a body. The case of his disappearance and death, however, has never been solved, and the true facts surrounding it may never be fully known.

Jimmy Hoffa rose to be one of the American labor movement’s most prominent and boisterous figures. Hoffa’s father died of silicosis—the result of the unsafe working conditions and grueling hours endured in the coal mines in which he had toiled—a tragic early death which left the young James bitter about the treatment of low-pay workers. Beginning as a teenage laborer for the grocery chain Kroger and later as a laborer for food distributors, Hoffa was known to his colleagues as a tireless, relentless organizer of his fellow workers. On his own, he was already leading effective strikes on behalf of blue collar laborers, a fact which caught the attention of leaders in the fledgling Teamsters in 1932. Hoffa left his job in the grocery business and soon joined the Teamsters as a full-time recruiter and organizer.

His forceful, charismatic personality and his street-level acumen for converting the frustrations of blue collar workers into organized responses and local political action made him one of the most effective union recruiters in U.S. history. In the brief period after he became the one of Teamster’s chief organizers in 1933, the IBT grew from only about 74,500 members to more than 175,000 within just three years; then, membership more than doubled between 1936 and 1939, rising to nearly a half million. Labor historians agree that much of this growth was due to Hoffa’s organizing style, as well as his penchant for recruiting like-minded organizers with a shared desire to see the growth of the Teamsters continue. By the middle 1950s, the IBT was one of the largest unions in the U.S., with close to one million members.

Jimmy Hoffa’s crowning achievement was the so-called National Master Freight Agreement, developed and negotiated over a period of two years by the Teamsters and other unions, and made official by all the parties in 1961. The arrangement placed virtually all over-the-road truckers, drivers and freight handlers in the U.S. and Canada under the umbrella of one comprehensive, broad labor agreement, perhaps the most sweeping unified labor package ever achieved.

Hoffa was part of a major shift in power toward unions throughout the middle part of the 20th century, and his rise was paralleled by the growth of other trade unions, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and major unions representing autoworkers, miners, electricians, garment workers, longshoremen, and steelworkers. It can be argued that one major effect of such unions was the elevation of many blue collar wages to a point where those workers were able to climb up the economic ladder and into the middle class—giving them economic leverage enough to buy modest homes, cars, and save for the education of their children.

But the rise of the Teamsters and the astonishing success of Hoffa’s program of recruitment and expansion were—most historians agree—in part because of the union’s alignment with a variety of organized crime figures and mob components. Early in his union career, Hoffa had seen the value of alignment with Mafioso figures; as a young organizer he had been beaten, clubbed, or thrashed with chains by hoodlums and mercenaries hired by organized crime figures who were themselves paid off by the very companies the Teamsters were striking. Hoffa saw that a strategic alignment with the Mafia would produce better, faster results in the streets and stockyards than attempting to encourage union members to fight the mobsters on their own violent terms.

Beginning with truck hijackings and merchandise stolen from warehouses, Hoffa in effect sanctioned an arrangement by which he would allow mob infiltration into some union-related activity in exchange for muscle in support of strikes, street confrontations, and negotiations with employers. Over the next decades, that alignment would eventually include Mafia meddling in pension funds, a percentage of profits from a variety of union operations, encroachment into gambling and the employment base of casinos, money laundering, and—as prosecutors would later charge—even a slice of every Teamster member’s annual dues.

Hoffa also had a singular desire to consolidate power within the Teamsters, forcing out regional union chiefs and local leaders who disagreed with him (sometimes through violent tactics), and ruthlessly channeling the fragmented energy of the Teamsters’ divergent and often competitive components into a unified operation under his control. By the time he rose to become the union’s president in 1958, and after a few years of squeezing his rivals out of leadership roles, the IBT rarely saw dissent within its ranks; local and regional leaders answered faithfully and reliably to Hoffa and his top lieutenants, and several of them had direct operational connections to the mob.

Indeed, in the major manufacturing centers where Teamster members were a dominant factor in the workplace—Chicago, Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, Las Vegas—Hoffa had what amounted to unlimited access to the muscle and machinery of Mafia operations. Hoffa also used a variety of barely legitimate business operations and union mechanisms as venues for money laundering—another factor which kept him in good stead with organized crime elements.

Hoffa’s adversaries were numerous, and included some equally powerful labor leaders in other organizations, such as the AFL-CIO’s George Meany. Indeed, Meany had lobbied for the ejection of the Teamsters from participation in the AFL-CIO in 1957.

None of Hoffa’s nemeses were more persistent and tenacious than Bobby Kennedy—a U.S. Senator and later Attorney General—a powerful man who made it one his life’s missions to corner and cage Hoffa. Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy became enemies with a deep loathing of each other. Kennedy became part of the McClellan Committee’s long inquiry into union corruption, an investigation which became a high profile legal fight in the newspapers and on television. Hoffa managed, however, to wriggle out of major convictions, and in some cases delay legal action, through a combination of cunning legal delays and legal sidesteps, or through outright jury tampering.

But after the FBI and other investigators—using the full weight of the federal government’s powers and a variety of wiretapping technology—finally nailed Hoffa for his role in conspiring to misuse union funds for a complex variety of illegal activities, including fraud and jury tampering. After exhausting all appeals, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison and sent to Lewisburg Federal Correctional Facility. His eventual release, by way of a White House pardon, has been the subject of much debate and controversy for decades—and, some historians agree, perhaps a major piece of the puzzle relating to his disappearance a few years later.

The last time anyone saw Hoffa, around 2:45 p.m. on July 30, he was getting into the back of a maroon Mercury Marquis in the parking lot of the Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Over the years, numerous people have boasted about being responsible for Hoffa’s disappearance. Very few of those who have bragged about knowing what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa have had their claims tested, scrutinized, or corroborated by independently discovered evidence.

In addition, dozens of excavations—each one following leads given to police—have taken place over the decades in search of Hoffa’s remains, either in total or in their parts. As recently as June 2013, FBI and other law enforcement excavated an empty lot and a tool shed in the Oakland Township, just outside of Detroit, following an apparently solid lead from a reputed mob enforcer and Detroit gangster Tony Zerelli. Zerelli, considered as credible a source of information as any, was in his mid-80s when he provided the lead to the FBI. Agents and construction workers demolished two concrete slabs, dug dozens of small pits, and used a variety of ground-penetrating radar in search of Hoffa’s remains, but like the previous digs, this one produced little of anything useful.

The Zerelli lead was merely one of the latest in a series of seemingly reliable tips over the years as to the whereabouts of Hoffa’s remains. Despite the credibility—or lack thereof—of many of the leads, Hoffa’s disappearance has remained unsolved.

Hoffa, according to one theory, was believed to be considering another run at the Teamsters presidency after his four-and-a-half year stint in a federal prison for jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud. Hoffa was pardoned by President Nixon in December, 1971, with the understanding that he would refrain from any union-related activity until 1980. It is possible—if some rumors are to be believed—that the pardon was granted in exchange for a large sum of cash, or political support, or both. The restriction in the pardon—that Hoffa was banned from holding any top union post for ten years—was drafted by White House counsel John Dean and negotiated, in part, by White House advisor Charles Colson.

What has never been clear is whether this restriction was instigated by President Nixon or by acting Teamsters president Frank Fitzsimmons, who Hoffa had personally appointed as chief of the union for the duration of his incarceration. Fitzsimmons had been a member of the union for nearly forty years and was considered by many in the rank and file as a “Hoffa man,” hand-picked by Hoffa to maintain the status quo until the latter could leave prison and return to his role as IBT leader. Indeed, Hoffa felt his position was ultimately secure as long as “Fitz” was acting in his stead.

In any case, the Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972: all parties were happy, with Nixon gaining the valuable support of a major labor union to the political detriment of Democrats, with Fitzsimmons now able to effectively secure and burnish his own position of power within the Teamsters, and with the shady edges of Mafia activity allowed to more-or-less continue unabated or with some minor restrictions.

But Hoffa was deeply unhappy—some would say livid—about the draconian arrangement, which had been crafted without his knowledge. Hoffa had no intention of being locked out of Teamster power for another decade.

Disenchanted by his imposed restriction, Hoffa sued to have it removed. He lost the case. The court ruled that Nixon had acted within the parameters of executive privilege and that the restriction was binding because it was based specifically on Hoffa’s own misconduct. The irate Hoffa, however, was undaunted and resolved to make a comeback with a grass-roots effort in Detroit, his original union power base. Circumstances in the Teamsters had changed. Although some of the members were content with Fitzsimmons in charge and saw no need to change hands, Hoffa still was held in high regard by the majority of the rank-and-file. Fitzsimmons was more laid-back than Hoffa and less confrontational in his leadership style. Hoffa could count many achievements in his career which benefited the union’s members and he built the Teamsters into a powerful entity. However, many members now considered him part of the union’s past rather than its future.

Predictably, a power struggle broke out between Teamster factions who supported Fitz, those who agitated for a return of Hoffa, and a smaller faction who wanted no part of either man’s leadership. Fitzsimmons also went about slowly but systematically purging some of Hoffa’s closest, most loyal associates, a sign, some noted even then, that Fitz was seeking to forge his own path to maintain power. Fitz also began early on to side with the government’s position regarding Hoffa—that he should remain ousted from any union activity for a period of ten years.

Another important factor in Hoffa’s plans was the still looming influence of organized crime. For nearly twenty years, allegations had persisted about Hoffa’s connections to the Mafia and, though him, the mobs influence over the Teamsters pension fund. Hoffa had connections to a variety of mob figures in a dozen cities, but in Detroit his go-to guys were Anthony Provenzano and Anthony Giacalone, top Mafia dons with deep Teamster influence. Provenzano—originally a member of a New Jersey crime syndicate and a Teamster since his teenage years—had himself once served as a vice-president of the national Teamster organization.

Hoffa—many labor historians and biographers have noted—was in fact planning to curtail, or perhaps even end, the mafia’s access to the Teamsters pension fund. In addition, Mob leaders may have been under the impression that Hoffa might succeed legally in having his union restrictions legally overturned. The Mafia had quietly communicated their unease to Hoffa, suggesting he retire amicably and advising him to accept a very generous financial payoff—a large Teamster pension along with a lifetime of healthcare and benefits. Still angry that he had been locked out of his own union, he defiantly rejected the advice, and he refused to believe the mob would commit any physical harm in retaliation. But to hedge his bets, he also quietly let it be known that he was planning to cooperate with the press if things got rough in his quest to regain control of the Teamsters, implying to more than one person that he would name names. He had also started writing a book; in it he would illuminate breadth and scope of Mafia influence, and he would specifically show how the mob controlled Fitzsimmons.

Still, Hoffa agreed to a meeting with mob representatives—likely Provenzano and Giacalone—in Detroit to discuss his plans. This meeting may have been set up in order to gauge Hoffa’s real intentions and subtly offer him one more chance to re-consider, in light of their past relationship.

The sides agreed to meet at the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, outside of Detroit. It is likely that both sides were familiar with the diner and Hoffa would feel safe there. Hoffa showed up on time and stood outside in the parking lot, waiting, though accounts differ as to how long he lingered there. Eventually, a car pulled into the parking lot and drove to where Hoffa was standing. Hoffa, typically impatient, approached the vehicle and appeared to be angry. He walked up to the car and spoke to the driver and another man in the front passenger seat. After a couple of minutes, Hoffa got into the car—reported by most witnesses to be a 1975 maroon or burgundy Mercury Marquis Brougham, which then drove away.

Thus, the meeting, if it ever took place, did not take place at the restaurant. A reasonable inference is that the plans for the meeting changed, at least regarding the location, and Hoffa likely did not anticipate the change. However, he probably recognized the men in the car and may have been reassured by them as to the change in plans.

No one has seen Hoffa since that day. The case of his disappearance and presumed murder is still open.

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