James Riddle "Jimmy" Hoffa (February 14, 1913 - disappeared July 30, 1975, exact date of death unknown) was an American labor leader and criminal convict (pardoned). As the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Hoffa wielded considerable influence. After he was convicted of attempted bribery of a grand juror, he served nearly a decade in prison. He is also well-known in popular culture for the mysterious circumstances surrounding his unexplained disappearance and presumed death. His son James P. Hoffa is the current president of the Teamsters.
Born in Brazil, Indiana, on Feb. 14, 1913, his paternal ancestors were Pennsylvania Germans, and of Lebanese ancestry ("Pennsylvania Dutch") who migrated to Indiana in the mid-1800s. His maternal ancestors were Irish-American. James grew up fast when his coal driller father John Cleveland Hoffa, died from lung disease in 1920. His mother Viola "Ola" Riddle, took in laundry to keep the family together and the children also helped with after school jobs. Hoffa later described his mother lovingly as a frontier type woman "who believed that Duty and Discipline were spelled with capital D's."
In 1922, the Hoffas moved to Clinton, Indiana, for a two year stay, then to Detroit to an apartment on Merritt Street on the city's brawling, working-class west side.
Tagged by the neighbor kids as hillbillies, Hoffa won respect and acceptance with his fists.
After school Jimmy worked as a delivery boy and finally dropped out of school in the 9th grade just as the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression brought massive layoffs and business failures.
A friend, Walter Murphy, told him to get into the food business. "No matter what happens, people have to eat," he said. Jimmy got a job at the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company, whose warehouses were located just a few blocks from his home. Lying to the foreman about his age, Hoffa began his job of unloading produce from railroad cars for 32 cents an hour.
The pay, two-thirds of it scrip redeemable for food at Kroger's, was good considering the growing unemployment and food lines. The downside to the new job was that warehouse workers were required to report at 4:30 p.m. for a 12-hour shift, but they only got paid for the time that they actually unloaded produce. The rest of the shift, they would sit around idle and unpaid, waiting to be called but unable to leave the premises.
The men also endured a foreman from hell, "the kind of guy," Hoffa later said, "who causes unions." Called the "Little Bastard" by all the workers, he abused his powers, threatening and firing workers for no reason.
Hoffa and his coworkers, including Bobby Holmes, who would also rise in the Teamster hierarchy with Hoffa, bided their time. The harsh reality that one third of American workers remained jobless made them cautious in their organizing efforts.
Finally one night in the spring of 1931, after two workers were fired for going to a food cart for their midnight dinner, the men acted. Hoffa called for a work stoppage just as trucks loaded with sweet juicy Florida strawberries pulled into the warehouse.
Faced with the need to get the perishable cargo into refrigerators quickly, Kroger management agreed to meet with the new leaders the following morning as long as the workers resumed their duties.
After several days of negotiating, Hoffa and his aides had a union contract. It included a raise of 13 cents an hour, the guarantee of at least a half a day's pay per day, a modest insurance plan, and of course, recognition of the union. The new leaders soon applied for and received a charter as Federal Local 19341 of the American Federation of Labor.
Hoffa was fired the following year after a fight with a plant foreman who goaded the hot-tempered union leaders into throwing a crate of vegetables on the floor and spraying the boss with assorted vegetable juices. Jimmy claimed in later years that he quit before he could be fired and walked away.
Hoffa next landed a job as a full time union organizer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He took the Kroger union with him into the IBT where its membership was absorbed into Local 299. He and other IBT organizers fought with management in their organizing efforts in the Detroit, Michigan, area.
Hoffa used organized crime connections to shake down an association of small grocery stores. This led to his first criminal conviction, for which he paid a fine. After he rose to a leadership position in Local 299, Hoffa continued to work with organized crime in Detroit, using the threat of labor trouble to induce business to use a mobster controlled clothier (Friedman and Schwarz, 1988).
The Teamsters union organized truckers & firefighters, first throughout the Midwest and then nationwide. It skillfully used quickie strikes, secondary boycotts and other means of leveraging union strength at one company to organize workers and win contract demands at others. The union also used less lawful means to bring some employers into line.
Hoffa took over the presidency of the Teamsters in 1957, when his predecessor, Dave Beck, was convicted on bribery charges and imprisoned. Hoffa worked to expand the union and in 1964 succeeded in bringing virtually all North American over-the-road truck drivers under a single national master freight agreement. Hoffa then pushed to try to bring the airlines and other transport employees into the union. This was of great concern to many as a strike involving all transport systems would be devastating for the national economy.
President John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson both put pressure on Hoffa through the president's brother Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General, attempting to investigate his activities and disrupt his ever-growing union. The Kennedys in particular were sure that Hoffa had pocketed a great deal of union money. Having expelled the Teamsters in the 1950s, the AFL-CIO also disliked Hoffa and aided the Democrats in their investigations.
Ultimately, Hoffa was not nearly as beholden to the Mob as to his successor and longtime crony Frank Fitzsimmons, who would have been jailed if he had not died from cancer. While Hoffa was a brilliant tactician who knew how to play one employer against another and who used the union's power to rationalize the industry by driving out weaker employers, "Fitz" was content to gather the other benefits of high office. The deregulation of the trucking industry pushed by Edward Kennedy and others during Fitzsimmons' tenure eventually destroyed much of what Hoffa had won for his members under the National Master Freight Agreement by making it much harder to maintain the standards Hoffa had achieved.
Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa, is the Teamsters' current leader; his daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, currently serves as an associate circuit court judge in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1964, Hoffa was convicted of attempted bribery of a grand juror and jailed for 15 years. On December 23, 1971, however, he was released when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to time served on the condition he not participate in union activities for 10 years. Hoffa was planning to sue to invalidate that restriction in order to reassert his power over the Teamsters when he disappeared at, or sometime after, 2:45 pm on July 30, 1975 from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Oakland County, Michigan , a suburb of Detroit. He had been due to meet two Mafia leaders, Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone from Detroit and Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano from Union City, New Jersey and New York City.