Of course, to many, Hoffa is notorious: a dictatorial and corrupt union boss who was close friends with gangsters and allied his union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, with the Mafia. There is certainly some truth to these charges. But it is worth remembering that Hoffa was much more than just a corrupt “dictator.” He was one of the most brilliant, effective and ambitious union leaders in American history, and he played a substantial role in creating the postwar middle class.
“When the government came after him,” a member of the Teamsters said years afterward (as quoted by historian Thaddeus Russell), “a lot of us wanted to take our trucks and run ’em over certain people. … Everyone I knew thought Hoffa was a great man.”
Why was he so beloved? Hoffa was perceived as defiantly standing up for workers against a society that exploited them and would strip them of everything if it could. “The working man is being shortchanged every day in America,” Hoffa said regularly in interviews.
On the charges of corruption and ties to the Mafia, he was unrepentant: “Twenty years ago [i.e., in 1939] the employers had all the hoodlums working for them as strikebreakers. Now we’ve got a few, and everybody’s screaming.” As Russell relates, teamsters saw him as a courageous truth-teller.
But the main reason for Hoffa’s popularity was simply that he delivered for his members. More than anyone else, he was responsible for transforming the trucking industry from a decentralized, low-paying, terribly unsafe industry in the 1930s to a centralized, high-paying and relatively humane one in the 1960s. According to biographer Arthur Sloane, the contracts he negotiated were so generous that there were stories of professors at elite universities quitting their jobs to become truck drivers because they could double their pay.
Hoffa’s success was due in part to the fact that, like the elites he battled, he didn’t play by the rules. If businessmen could bribe politicians and the Mafia could bribe police departments, why couldn’t a union leader in a hostile, competitive environment use the same tactics?
By whatever means necessary, Hoffa would, and did, force employers to unionize their workforces, establish unusually generous health and pension funds, and in general treat their employees with some respect. In 1964 Hoffa even achieved the dream he had worked toward for 25 years: He negotiated a National Master Freight Agreement with employers across the country, a contract that secured virtually uniform wages for 450,000 drivers from coast to coast and north to south. At a time when most of the South had very low wages and was hardly unionized at all, this was an incredible — and unique — achievement.
Hoffa did indeed break the law on many occasions. But the question remains, given the corruption and law-breaking by countless businessmen and powerful officials — including Hoffa nemesis Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who used illegal wiretaps and electronic bugs to bring down his enemy — why was Hoffa singled out?
The answer is that organized labor itself was a target, and Hoffa was significant as the head of the largest, most powerful and most politically independent union. Since the IBT often supported Republicans, even Democrats were willing to go after it.
In the 1950s, big business was conducting a colossal political, legal and public-relations campaign to beat back the left-liberalism spawned by the New Deal era. Historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf argues in “Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60” that there was a “unity of purpose within much of the business community on … the necessity of halting the advance of the welfare state and of undermining the legitimacy and power of organized labor.”
What better way to accomplish this goal than to focus public attention on union corruption and ties to Mafia figures, as the McClellan Committee of 1957-59 did? It was immaterial that many politicians and “legitimate” businesses were no less connected to the Mafia.
But the central lesson of Hoffa’s life remains relevant today: to build union power, leaders must be willing to confront employers, aggressively stand up for the material interests of members and stay close to the rank and file, as Hoffa did. It’s necessary to antagonize the economic elite, because ultimately the power of organized labor is grounded in the working class, not in friendly relations with authorities. In the era of teacher revolts, the Fight for $15, and “democratic socialist” politics, all unions should heed these lessons.