Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Complicated Labour Legacy of Jimmy Hoffa

It’s Valentine’s Day and though couples everywhere will be gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes, we know there’s only one thing people really have on their minds: Jimmy Hoffa.

Hoffa had a strong and polarizing personality – some love him and some hate him. Whether one is firmly on the side that believes Hoffa did a great disservice to the Labour Movement or in the camp convinced of his enduring value to the Labour Movement, the undisputable fact is that Hoffa had a profound impact on the history and direction of organized labour, both in the US and elsewhere.

On this day in 1913, James R. Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana. Hoffa was only seven years-old when he lost his father to a lung disease caused by poor working conditions in the coal mines. After his father’s death, Hoffa’s mother moved the family to Detroit, Michigan. It was here that Hoffa began his union activities.

When he was seventeen years-old, Hoffa worked at Kroger Grocery and Baking Company where he unloaded shipments of produce. His wage was 32 cents an hour. The job had a couple of major downsides: (i) the workers worked 12-hour shifts but were only paid during the times when they were actually unloading. Much of the job was waiting for another shipment to come in and the workers were unpaid during this time. (ii) A harsh foreman who liked to abuse his power and who seemed to enjoy both firing and threatening to fire workers[1].

In 1931, the foreman’s penchant for abusing his power was on display in full force when he fired two workers for going to a food cart for their dinner. For Hoffa and the other workers, this was the last abuse they could bear. Together with some of the other workers, Hoffa organized a work stoppage just when a delivery of fresh fruit arrived. Fearful that the fruit would spoil if the strike persisted, management quickly gave in and agreed to meet and negotiate with Hoffa and the other leaders of the strike the next day.

The subsequent meetings with management showed Hoffa to be a skilled negotiator. He successfully negotiated a wage increase of 13 cents per hour for the workers and obtained a guarantee from management that the workers would receive at least half a day’s pay. Most importantly, management agreed to recognize the union[2].

Emboldened by this success Hoffa went on to incorporate Kroger’s workers into a local of the union he would one day head – the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). He became an organizer for the IBT and, at only 28 years-old, Hoffa was elected vice president of the union. Later, in 1957, he officially became president of the IBT[3]. 

During his tenure as president of the IBT much was made of Hoffa’s association with known mafia members. Hoffa didn’t try to hide these connections and often used his mafia association to intimidate and to prevent interference with the rights of IBT members[4]. Unfortunately for Hoffa, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., then Chief Investigator of the Rackets Committee for the United States Senate was cracking down on organized crime[5]. Hoffa was suspected of misappropriating union pension funds, among other things, and was the subject of several federal investigations. Charged with violating a provision of the notoriously anti-labour, Labour Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), Hoffa went to trial in 1962. The trial concluded with a hung jury.

This didn’t end Hoffa’s legal woes, however. In 1964 he was convicted of bribing jury members during the 1962 trial[6] and, in 1967, he began serving a 13-year prison sentence[7]. He was released in 1971 when President Nixon commuted his sentence[8].Four years later, in 1975, Hoffa disappeared. He was declared legally dead in 1982[9].

Hoffa was a complicated man who left an equally complicated legacy. Opinion will likely always be split over whether his involvement with the labour movement was beneficial or detrimental. He was certainly a big personality. If nothing else, Hoffa made the Teamsters a household name and brought labour issues to the attention of the general public in way that hasn’t been seen since.

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