Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters

On this day 1975, James Riddle Hoffa, one of the most influential American labor leaders of the 20th century, disappears from lunch at the Machus Red Fox in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, never to be heard from again. Was he poured into the foundation of the Meadowlands in Jersey? Are his fillings still in the old zinc bath on Fort Street? Did Kowalski consumers unwittingly eat him as a secret ingredient in the grind? Do you drive over him on the east third of I-696? Did he get a bad piece of veal? 44 years later, we all still need to know.

The son of an Indiana coal miner who died when Hoffa was seven, Hoffa moved with his family to Detroit in 1924. He left school at age 14, worked as a stock boy and warehouseman for several years, and began his union-organizing activities in the 1930’s. Initially the business agent for Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, Hoffa by 1940 had become chairman of the Central States Drivers Council and by 1942 president of the Michigan Conference of Teamsters. In 1952 he was elected an international vice president of the Teamsters, and five years later he succeeded Dave Beck as international president.

Known throughout the trucking industry as a bare-knuckle, tough-as-nails negotiator, Hoffa shrewdly centralized administration and bargaining in the international office of the union. He also played a critical role in the creation of the first national freight-hauling agreement, and his efforts helped make the Teamsters the largest labor union in the United States.

Also known to have long cavorted with various organized crime figures, profligate in old-timey Metro Detroit, Hoffa nevertheless survived a series of governmental prosecutions, including a bitter feud with Bobby Kennedy, until 1967, when he was finally convicted and sent down to federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. He was to serve a 13-year sentence for jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy, yet refused to resign as president of the Teamsters while in prison and kept that position until 1971. 

Thinking of his own 1972 reelection, Pres. Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa’s sentence in December 1971, stipulating that he could not engage in any union activity until 1980. Hoffa happily walked out of confinement, but then fought the restriction in court and was widely believed to have covertly continued his efforts to reestablish a union position.

On the fateful day in 1975, Hoffa left for a lunch appointment at the Red Fox restaurant with Anthony Provenzano, a New Jersey Teamsters official and former Mafia figure, and Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone, a Detroit mobster; both later denied having encountered Hoffa, who was never seen again. He was legally declared “presumed dead” in 1982. Having perhaps lost a step in the joint, Hoffa failed to intuit that it was indeed he who was on the menu that afternoon.

James P. Hoffa, son of his infamously missing Dad, was sworn in as general president of the Teamsters on May 1, 1999, after a bitter election campaign culminated in his defeat of Ron Carey, a longtime critic of the senior Hoffa. 20 years later he continues to lead the Teamsters, and appears to work feverishly in search of a solution to the Central States Pension Plan crisis, as the plan is expected to be insolvent in 2025, leaving loyal Teamsters in the lurch.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.