People

The day Jimmy Hoffa didn't come home

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News

On July 30, 1975, James Riddle Hoffa left his Lake Orion home for a meeting. Paroled from federal prison three years earlier, the former Teamster president had recently announced plans to try to wrestle back control of the union he had built with his bare knuckles from his protege — now adversary — Frank Fitzsimmons.

Anthony Giacalone, a reputed captain of organized crime in Detroit, was supposed to meet Hoffa that day.

Jimmy told his wife Josephine he would be home around 4 p.m. to grill streaks for dinner. After 39 years of marriage, she knew Jimmy would not be late.

Witnesses saw him waiting in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in upscale Bloomfield Township. He never made it home.

Hoffa. The name alone stirs strong emotions and opinions. Was he a visionary union hero or brutal despot? Was he a labor crusader or a criminal?

Jimmy Hoffa began his union career as a teenager in the 1930s. A grade school dropout, he almost single handedly built the Teamsters union into an awesome national power. His hammer-handed negotiating techniques, his alleged links to organized crime, and his bitter feuds with John and Robert Kennedy made Hoffa the prototypical labor leader of his day.

Born in Brazil, Ind., on Feb. 14, 1913, Jimmy grew up fast when his coal miner father died from lung disease in 1920. His mother 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, Ind., 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.

 

Striking truck drivers battle police in Minneapolis in 1934. Violence initiated by both sides was common during labor organizing in the 1930s.

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 Teamstrer 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 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.

 

Strikers at Detroit’s E&B Brewery block E. Kirby with their cars to prevent strikebreakers from getting through with their trucks. Arrow points to an E&B truck stuck behind the strikers’ cars.

In his early organizing days, Hoffa frequented Detroit’s loading docks, buttonholing warehouse men and driveaway and truckaway drivers. He also recruited employees in breweries, drugstores, packinghouses and retail stores. A sign he posted in his union hall read: “If it moves, sign it up.”

As an organizer Hoffa received no salary but got a small percentage of the dues of each new member that he recruited.

Union organizing in the ’30s was difficult and often dangerous, earning activists such labels as “rebel outsiders”, “radicals, “Communists,” or “anarchists”.

Hoffa recounted numerous street fights with thugs “who were out to get us.”

“Our cars were bombed out. Three different times, someone broke into the office and destroyed our furniture. Cars would crowd us off the streets. Then it got worse…..Your life was in your hands every day. There was only one way to survive….fight back. And we used to slug it out on the streets. They found out we didn’t scare. The police were no help. The police would beat your brains in for even talking union. The cops harrassed us every day. If you went on strike, you got your head broken. The whole thing didn’t take months-it took years.”

Joe Franco, a former Hoffa lieutenant, described the security technique Hoffa taught his officers: “To this day, I still have the habit he drilled into me about getting into a car. I put my right leg in and my left leg stays out, and then I start my car. If the car is rigged and you start your car that way, you have a 50-50 chance of surviving because if it blows up, it will blow you out of the car.”

In his first year as business agent for Local 299, Hoffa was beaten by police or strikebreakers 24 times. “I was hit so many times with night sticks, clubs and brass knuckles that I can’t even remember where the bruises were.” He recalled being arrested and thrown into jail 18 times during one 24-hour period of picket line duty.

 

This classic photo shows a 28-year-old Hoffa shooting craps on the sidewalk with Detroit lumber dealer Patrick J. Currier, left, as striking lumberyard workers look on.

“Every time I showed up on the picket line, I got thrown in jail. Every time they released me, I went back to the picket line.”

Hoffa stayed in touch with his constituents. He spent only one-third of his time in the office. He mostly worked the fields attending mass demonstrations, showing up on the picket lines and signing up new members.

“You got a problem. Call me. Just pick up the phone.”

His day started at 8 a.m. and continued through the early morning hours of the next day. In his “war” with management Hoffa made up his own strong-arm rules and he didn’t hesitate to apply them to rival unions, notably the CIO. Hoffa decided that the quickest way to spread the Teamster message into other regions of the country was to organize the long-haul drivers. He traveled up and down the highways pulling up at the side of the road alongside sleeping truck drivers, giving them his union sales pitch.

Drivers during those Depression years knew that they were easy targets for thieves as they slept alone in their trucks. They dozed holding a tire iron or wrench in fear of highway robbers.

Hoffa learned quickly to identify himself with a rapid fire greeting: “Hi-I’m-Jimmy-Hoffa-Organizer-for-the-Teamsters-and-I-wonder-if-I-could-talk-to-you-briefly-.” Then he’d jump back.

Sometimes he found not sleepy-eyed truckers but employer-hired anti-union thugs waiting for him along quiet deserted stretches of highway.

 

Hoffa yells out the window of his car at a Detroit News photographer who was taking his picture and Second and Euclid streets. According to the photographer, Hoffa yelled “Get the hell out, you bastard, I’ll punch you in the nose.”

But his tremendous zest and almost religious drive to convert truckers for the union would not be deterred. In 1936, while helping a group of nonunionized striking laundry employees, he met an 18-year-old Polish beauty, Josephine Poszywak, whom he married that September.

Josephine’s Polish background saturated her daily life. Educated in Polish-speaking parochial schools, family and church remained the focal point of her world. Described as a complete homebody, she loved cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids.

The Hoffas had two modest homes, one on Robson Street in northwest Detroit, and a cottage outside of Detroit in rural Lake Orion.

Their two children, Barbara and James Jr., recalled adventures with their dad at the Lake Orion property. When not unionizing, Hoffa proved to be a devoted, loving father.

He would create and tell the kids endless tales about “Freddie the Fox” who was always getting into trouble with the other creatures in the forest, but who always negotiated his way out of a potential disaster by using his brain. The stories, unlike Hoffa’s life, always ended happily. The kids remember that with dad, “it was always like the Fourth of July.”

Hoffa loved to fish and hunt and would travel to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, often taking his whole staff with him for part-adventure, part-union seminars.

One day on a hunting trip, Jimmy turned to his aide Joe Franco while they were having breakfast: “Franco, if laws were passed in this country that would eliminate unions, would the employers revert back to the ’30s and ’20s and pay their employees starvation wages and take full advantage over their employees?”

Hoffa in 1953. By now he was president of the Central Conference of Teamsters.Hoffa in 1953. By now he was president of the Central Conference of Teamsters.

Franco told his boss, “I don’t think management would ever revert back to the old days of the sweat shops. I can’t believe that. They’ve been taught. We’ve organized them and we’ve established working conditions for their employees for appying grievances and whatever problems may exist.”

Hoffa looked at him, “Franco, you’re full of it. You give any employer a chance to cut his wages in half tomorrow morning and that SOB will do it. Because he’s money hungry and the only way he can make money is by taking it out of the working man’s mouth. Don’t ever think different. You’re young, You’re coming up, but, God, you’re naive.”

The Teamsters grew as did the power of Hoffa.

In 1952, Dave beck won the International presidency and Hoffa was elected International vice president.

In 1953 as president of the Central Conference of Teamsters, Hoffa negotiated for all cartage drivers in 20 Midwestern and Southern states, and he sought to bring Eastern locals into the unified Teamster bargaining network.

A senate panel known as the McClellan Committe, investigating improper labor paractices in the late 1950s, was looking into allegations by convicted labor racketeer John Dioguardi. Dioguardi had worked closely with Hoffa in the East and said that Hoffa had manipulated union funds for his own profit and had accepted payoffs from trucking companies. The charges were never proved and in 1957 Hoffa was acquitted of a charge that he tried to bribe one of the committee’s investigators.

But the committee’s case against Dave Beck ended with Beck’s conviction on embezzlement, larceny and income tax evasion charges.

The AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters, and in October 1957, Hoffa won the International presidency, replacing Beck.

Hoffa completed the centralization process within the Teamsters. He designed the Teamster’s national freight agreements and brought the nation’s trucking industry under one labor agreement, boosting members wages and paving the way for a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

But Hoffa could’t shake law enforcement agencies. He fought federal investigators during the ’50s and ’60s. They charged that his empire thrived on violence, fraud and misuse of union money. His enemies relentlessly pursued him as a “ruthless” union official on the take.

 

Hoffa and Teamsters President Dave Beck in 1956.

After Robert F. Kennedy, who had been chief counsel for the McClellan Committee, became Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, the government’s investigations escalated.

The Justice Department was frustrated in its attempts to prosecute Hoffa until it enlisted the help of Edward Grady Partin, a Louisiana Teamster who in jail awaiting trial for embezzling union funds and kidnapping. Making a deal with the prosecutors, Partin befriended Hoffa, pretending to be a loyal lieutenant, during a 1962 Hoffa trial on charges of accepting an illegal playment from an employer. Hoffa was acquitted but two years later, on Partin’s testimony, a jury convicted Hoffa of jury tampering and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren would later call the conviction an “affront to the quality and fairness of federal law enforcement.”

Shortly after his ’64 conviction Hoffa received an additional five years when he was convicted in Chicago with six others of fraud and conspiracy in the handling of a union benefits fund.

In March 1967, with all appeals exhausted, Hoffa entered Lewisburg Federal Prison to begin his 13-year sentence.

Hoffa refused to give up the presidency of the union, appointing Frank Fitzsimmons, mild mannered general vice-president of the Teamsters, as caretaker. During the next four years Hoffa had three parole hearings, all of which were rejected partially because of his refusal to give up the presidency. Finally in June 1971, Hoffa announced his retirement, clearing the way for Fitzsimmons who won election to the presidency.

President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence on Dec. 23, 1971, and Hoffa left prison the same day, returning home to map out his stratgy for regaining control over the union he had built with his own hands.

Days after his disappearance in 1975, both family and police believed the former union official, once among the most powerful men in the country, was dead, probably murdered. Police believed the Mafia killed him.

During his rise to the top Hoffa had encountered numerous shady characters and many didn’t want him back. Hoffa had close associations with top mob figures in Detroit during the early days of his career, men like Santo Perrone, Joseph (Scarface Joe) Bommarito, Frank Coppola and others known as the “East Side Crowd.”

 

Hoffa is congratulated by Teamsters members after a 1957 speech in Chicago at a meeting in which he was urged to run for president to succeed Dave Beck.

From his liaisons with alleged Detroit gangsters came introductions and ties to national mobsters. Hoffa never tried to conceal or deny these ties. “These organized crime figures are the people you should know if you’re going to avoid having anyone interfere with your strike, and that’s what we know them for…..We make it it our business, and the head of any union who didn’t would be a fool. Know who are your potential enemies and know how to neurtralize ’em.”

On July 30, 1975, Jimmy left home for an afternoon meeting with Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, a reputed crime capo in Detroit, and Anthony Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamster boss known to friends as “Tony Pro.” The relationship between Hoffa and Provenzano had been hostile since their days together at Lewisburg prison where Provenzano had joined Hoffa on racketeering charges. Hoffa blamed Provenzano for much of the federal “heat” that had come down on the Teamsters during the Kennedy reign.

Witnesses saw Hoffa waiting at the Machus Red Fox parking lot. He made at least two calls from a pay phone outside a hardware store in the upscale neighborhood mall.

Since that day the FBI and Justice Department have amassed nearly 70 volumes of evidence, much centering on the rival New Jersey faction that had been headed by Provenzano.

Hoffa’s disappearance remains the quintessential unsolved mystery.

Federal investigators believe mob bosses had Hoffa killed to prevent him from regaining the union presidency, but they never found enough evidence to charge anyone.

 

Hoffa, seated at right, testifies before the McLellan Committee.

Many suspects have since died, including Provenzano, who died in prison. Investigators say Provenzano had made it clear to Hoffa to “get out of union politics or else.”

Some suspected that Chuckie O’Brien, a Teamster whom Hoffa had once treated like a son and whose mother had lived with the Hoffa family for a long time, played a role in the disappearance.

In 1982 Hoffa was declared legally dead.

In 1995, James P. Hoffa, son of Jimmy and now president of the Teamsters, and daughter Barbara Crancer, held a memorial service for their father at Detroit’s Holy Trinity church. The service was attended by more than 2,000 friends who remembered the powerful and controversial leader.

Said Ed Scribner of the Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO, “Hoffa’s career literally touched millions and millions of workers in this country…. who know a quality of life that was not possible before Jimmy Hoffa.”

Longtime friend and associate Robert Holmes reflected, “He never backed down from anybody. He was not only strongly opinionated, but he could take care of himself in other ways too. Everybody was mad at Hoffa but his membership. He was a real rank-and-file guy. The world has changed, everything has changed. People are more educated. I don’t know if he could do now what he did. But one of Hoffa’s best secrets was he knew how to get along with people. His name was his bond. He never asked you to do anything at all he wouldn’t do himself.”

Hoffa’s middle name was taken from his mother’s maiden name, Riddle, and his disappearance remains just that.