The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians, and the Mob
The space allotted to the American teamster in the landscape of our literature is pretty much its desert portion. The only two figures with much claim upon our memory are Tennessee Williams’s Stanley Kowalski and William Faulkner’s Montgomery Ward Snopes, who was drummed out of Jefferson, Mississippi, for dealing in filthy pictures and thereafter noticed only in dim exile as a Teamster business agent in Memphis. The truck driver as a wound to the feelings of radical feminism, his business agent as a Snopes: such is the extent of what the higher literary sensibility has had to tell us about both. We can hardly say that art has been unjust, but we cannot help feeling that it has been incomplete.
Neither of these current works, however admirable in its special way, manages, I’m afraid, to replenish this great neglected subject. It is a failure that has nothing to do with want of character or intelligence, but a great deal to do with the limitations of method. Brill and Moldea are both investigative reporters. Investigative reporting is the best, probably the only, excuse for journalism; but, welcome as its renaissance is, we ought to recognize that it is an extractive and not a refining process.
Moldea’s book is the more striking instance of the method’s virtue as an inspiration to energy and of its vice as a discouragement to reflection. His shovel throws up the ore and the slag in one indiscriminate mass. On the one hand we have page after page of conscientious, if recondite, detail about the grievances of steelhaulers, the tribulations and treasons of innumerable uprisings against the union’s bravoes, and the beatings and the bombings in the quarrel over Detroit Local 299 between Teamster professionals who had deserted James R. Hoffa and those still loyal to him. On the other hand we have any number of fantasies about the malignant authority exercised by Hoffa over our national history, an authority in a coalition of the Teamsters Union and organized crime. This is the coalition that may or may not have murdered President Kennedy, that ran guns to overthrow Batista, and that then appointed hit men to assassinate Castro. It is all made vivid by irrelevancies like the account of how Santos Trafficante, one of Hoffa’s putative partners in this invisible government, took his oath as a mafioso:
With an ancient Spanish dagger—none from Sicily was available—Trafficante cut his left wrist, allowed the blood to flow, and wet his right hand in the crimson stream. Then he held up the bloody hand.
“So long as the blood flows in my body,” he intoned solemnly, “do I, Santos Trafficante, swear allegiance to the will of Meyer Lansky and the organization he represents.”
This anthropological incongruity is not, in fairness, Moldea’s own creation but one borrowed from Ed Reid’s The Grim Reapers.* Still, when we are asked to believe in a Meyer Lansky to whom no ritual could be kosher unless it was kept faithful to Sicilian custom, we have to recognize that investigative reporting is all too often a craft where it is easier to trust the teller than the tale. The great defect of the method may be that it will dare the wildest degree of speculation about events and none at all about first causes.
Brill is an altogether more heedful packer than Moldea, and the goods he has assembled are far more interestingly various. He has, to be sure, paid his dues to the luridness of Hoffa’s life, without which teamster history could have only the meagerest claim upon publishers’ advances. But he has also moved beyond the intent to shock to the effort to explain. He has hunted up honest union officers, driven through nights with truckmen, and puzzled over the failure of more civilized spirits among the national leaders—in particular Harold Gibbons of St. Louis—to be much better men than the savages around them.
Brill’s sense of justice is as untiring as his industry; and even those of us left obscurely dissatisfied cannot withhold the admiring concession that there is nothing we know about the Teamsters that this author does not know better. Still, James R. Hoffa somehow remains the elusive subject he has always been for pretty much every pursuer, except the police who intermittently jailed him and the gangsters who finally killed him. That may be because he still clouds our understanding with the smoke of his dominant delusion, which was that organized crime is a major force in the social contract. Living by a fantasy all too often means dying in circumstances that would be common ones if the fantasy described any general reality.
If Hoffa had not so greedily swallowed the myth of the mob, he could hardly have established himself in our memory as the most notable victim of a penal code that applies to the devotee and not to the unbeliever. Hoffa’s peculiar faith explains a good deal about his distorted life and awful death; but all the same there is something wanting in any examination of the long and so far triumphant resistance of the Teamsters Union to the temptations of virtue that does not take account of the deficiencies of the better as well as the worse in our civilization.
The Hoffa mystery is, of course, rather too large to yield to merely environmental considerations. Still, if a case could be made for blaming a man’s antisocial disposition upon social conditioning, the Detroit of Hoffa’s formative years would be a most plausible place to make it. He was forced out of school and into a depressed labor market when he was only fifteen. He was a freight loader in a grocery warehouse when its crew went on strike two years later; and it is equal evidence of his capacities and of the destruction the Depression had worked upon the pride of his elders in the warehouse that this seventeen-year-old boy was thrust forth as their leader.
Those were times when to strike would normally have meant to be fired and to watch replacements dredged up from the pool of the displaced that filled the streets. But Hoffa selected a moment when a strawberry shipment was waiting to be unloaded and would have spoiled with even a day’s delay. His employer could only surrender to his demands, which were for little more than an abatement in the discourtesies of the crew foreman. Hoffa came to the social struggle where only blackmail worked and then against no oppressor of higher eminence than a straw boss.
By the time he was twenty, his energies and talents had been certified by his appointment as organizer for Teamsters Local 299. Detroit’s property in the Thirties was unevenly apportioned among men of hardened conscience who managed the automobile companies and men of even harder conscience who owned laundries, taverns, and service stations. It was then conceivable that a time would come when Walter Reuther would sit in the General Motors board room implacably and interminably preaching to its executives. Jimmy Hoffa was meanwhile making his way with whatever humane sensibilities might lodge in Moe Dalitz, who controlled several Detroit laundries, and in Angelo Meli, who rationed its jukebox concessions.
Dalitz had begun as a roustabout for the Purple Gang and achieved managerial stature as a bookmaker, while Meli owed his substance to his aura as a Mafia paladin. They were not men of affairs who bulked large in board rooms; but they were outsized by comparison with the average enterpriser in Hoffa’s path, who was, more often than not, a truck driver whose scrabblings had earned him three or four trucks of his own. This was a society that, being too narrow to offer room to truly largescale proprietors, quite naturally invested the gangster with a status disproportionate to his real position in the economy; and he was the biggest businessman with whom Hoffa had to deal.
Hoffa’s almost lifelong antipathy toward wider social aspirations might be more cause for censure if Detroit had offered any secular inspiration except Walter Reuther’s. But the institutional enmity between the AFL teamsters and the CIO auto workers had kept Reuther a being apart; moreover, he was a figure for whom distance lent enchantment only for social workers and liberals of the comfortable class. Hoffa was privileged to see in Reuther only a public man as windy and fatuous as the private one was shrewd and downright; Reuther had little existence for him except as a force strengthening an already too firm conviction that social piety deserves a bad name.
There was a destructive imp in Hoffa that pushed him into continual warfare against whatever was decorous and made him incapable of trusting anyone whom society had not found unworthy of its trust. He reached maturity with a conscience equipped to resist few temptations except the promptings to discretion. His boyish superstition that no man walks the earth who is unpurchaseable had been solidified into a doctrine by repeated experiences with judges grateful for his favors, with investigating district attorneys diminished in zeal by the persuasions of friends on emergency retainer as teamster lawyers, and with congressmen tempered by the recollection of their debt to teamster campaign funds.
“I’ll tell you about a common standard of morality,” he once told Playboy. “In my humble opinion, there is none in the United States.”
Cynicism is, of course, a kind of credulity; and the Hoffa who was thus armored against every sermon from the pious was naked to every promise from the ungodly. His assurance that each of us has his price never seems to have extended to any firm notion of what his own might be. He was, of course, too devoted a husband and father not to be vulnerable now and then to offers to fortify and increase his personal estate. Yet in such efforts he almost invariably chose collaborators who were deficient in common as well as moral sense; he entered into schemes suggested to rather than by him, and emerged more often their victim than their beneficiary. His innocence as much as his corruption explains why a Teamsters welfare and pension fund leaked out loans to promoters whose collateral was as insecure as their enterprises.
He had two prime superstitions and they were enough to constitute the most gullible of creeds: he was persuaded equally of the special financial acumen of swindlers and of the steadfast fidelity of felons. I once asked him why he seemed almost to prefer former convicts in his appointments to union office, and he replied: “If a guy has a record, he can’t doublecross you. Who else would hire him?” This incapacity to understand that, at moments of necessity, hoodlums are no more to be trusted than decent people makes it unsurprising that, when Hoffa was murdered, suspicion fell at once upon Anthony Provenzano, who owed Hoffa his elevation to a vice presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
This disdain of Hoffa’s for the respectable and respect for the disreputable suggest that there smoldered in him embers of the proletarian consciousness whose extinction was otherwise a particular pride of the American labor movement. That consciousness showed itself in the fierce hatred of anyone born rich which throbbed in his self-damaging contempt for Robert Kennedy as “a damned spoiled kid.” He could never hate a man, even the worst, who had gotten what he possessed through no hands except his own; and he could never like even the best who had it handed to him with his christening cup.
This prejudice was lodged in an inexhaustible vein of historical pessimism which held that the mass of humanity is incapable of improvement and that, if it changes at all, it changes for the worse. He was unable to entertain, much less believe, the notion that his country had dispensed with man’s inhumanity to man with the New Deal revolution—although many in his own time would have been happy to welcome him as a fine product of that revolution if he had behaved himself. It was their faith in historical progress that held Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky to the certainty that Henry Ford II and Nelson Rockefeller had nobler characters than their grandfathers; and it was his rooted conviction of universal and immutable evil that would have made Jimmy Hoffa prefer the grandfathers.
But he was otherwise like most labor leaders, and no more than they did he love those he served or hate those he fought. For all his estrangement, he could not look upon his country’s works and not find them great; and, when he did so, he was bowing before the achievements of ownership and enterprise, definably a grander contribution to the nation’s glory than the grimier endeavors of the unions could ever be felt as being. Like most of his fellows, he thought of labor and management as yoked in a common service; and, like them, he envied management less for its larger material rewards than for the wider scope of its choices. How much nobler it seemed to design and build and even pack and ship than only to remonstrate.
Hoffa had nothing in common with the more socially aware of his distant and inimical cousins in the labor movement except a self-esteem that, as it grew, could less and less be distinguished from the vanity of the engineer and the expediter. Walter Reuther had never so lively an appreciation of himself as when he was lecturing the automobile manufacturers on how to organize production. Harry Bridges admired every feature of Soviet society except its arrangement of the docking facilities at Odessa, and when he and Hoffa first met they did not argue the worker’s place in history but seized instead the chance to debate the techniques of cargo-loading, a common obsession.
But then Hoffa shared with most other Americans no illusion except awe at the contemplation of the system of mass distribution of goods. The nation’s economic history might well be told according to the tool that was the dominant symbol of each of its successive stages—first the plow, then the steam engine, then the assembly line, and now—the summit of this long climb—the truck, the one tool whose function was to distribute rather than to produce. The process of manufacture had passed from the hand to the machine until at last the glory of the product belonged to its size rather than its fineness. Nothing about the truck except itself suggested any original dignity of workmanship. More and more air went into the bread it transported and fewer and fewer hops into the beer. By the end of the 1950s, more and more Americans were driving wheeled vehicles for a living instead of working to manufacture anything.
The truck driver had become the emblem of American majesty; and yet there was a bleakness to his existence, just as there was a quotient of junk and broken promises in every cargo of the filled American ideal whose chauffeur he was. The truck larger than a locomotive, with nothing human about it except his own lonely self, was a presence whose brutishness overwhelmed every effort he made to introduce some note of the jocular and the neighborly into the warnings he composed for its tailgates. What, helpless as he was, could he say to the traffic behind him except: “I will spare you if you pass on the left side, but I have no way to avoid killing you if you pass on the right.” To be a teamster was to be too often reminded less of the rewards than the defaults of a country that, after thinking of itself as having fought a war to preserve mom’s blueberry pie, was now in victory being served Drake’s Cake.
The consequence was a sour resignation that showed itself most painfully twenty years ago, when the peculations of Dave Beck, Hoffa’s predecessor as president of the union, became the first of a never-diminishing succession of scandals, and the journalists went forth to canvass the reactions of the truck drivers themselves. This search for expressions of revulsion unearthed instead responses that could hardly be told from the preachments of Jimmy Hoffa.
“Everybody is out to get what he can,” one teamster said to the Minneapolis Tribune; the doctrine of dog eat dog had so established its sovereignty that even the dogs waiting for the carving knife recited it while they were being laid out upon the table.
How can we explain so entire a social harmony between the cheaters and the cheated except as a unity between the contempt of the union managers for the teamster with the teamster’s contempt for himself? The observations of the deformed best and the intact worst of the union’s professionals are strikingly alike in their conviction that the teamster’s deserts were just and even generous.
“We happen to be in a heavily and largely unskilled area,” Teamster vice president Harold Gibbons told the Senate rackets committee in the late Fifties. “One does not have to have too many talents to drive a truck necessarily…. [Most] of us in our lifetimes have learned to drive an automobile.”
Gibbons has always been one of the murkier figures in the Teamster Brotherhood’s long struggle against salvation; and Brill assigns him the special part in the tragedy that belongs to the redeemer who never keeps his promise. He was a vice president of Americans for Democratic Action, and his St. Louis locals were admired both for the efficiency of their political programs and the enlightenment of their ventures in education. He was one of those untrustworthy saints whose sanctity—thanks to their tolerance—especially impresses the more abandoned class of sinners.
Gibbons breathed high principles and swallowed low practices with such unvarying enthusiasm that at the peak of a reputation he owed largely to Hoffa he remained a solitary beacon of hope for those who trusted in a time to come when the teamsters would be as Stevensonian, as Niebuhrian, as Eleanor Rooseveltian as more and more advertising directors and television producers were showing themselves to be in the late Fifties.
But agreeable though it was for him to shine as Blifil among all those Black Georges, Gibbons never bothered to mask his estimate of the ordinary teamster as someone who had made less of himself than he ought to have. Some of his devotion to his terrible chief may be set down to the habit most men have of being true to their salt; but much of this loyalty had to be owing as well to a despair of the sheep that argued that Hoffa was the best shepherd they could hope for.
Brill reminds us of the only two cases when Gibbons dared stand alone against his fellow Teamster executives, and they most suggestively illuminate his notion of the difference between the avoidable and the inescapable moral choice.
When President Kennedy was murdered in November of 1963, Gibbons was commanding the union’s national headquarters in Hoffa’s absence and ordered the American flag flown at half-staff. Hoffa was understandably enraged by the hypocrisy of any gesture of sympathy toward a family that was zealously harrying him to prison, and fell into a display of wrath so repellent to Gibbons that he resigned as Hoffa’s executive assistant and retired to St. Louis. In 1972, he refused his vote to the otherwise unanimous resolution with which the Teamster executive board endorsed President Nixon’s re-election, and was punished for this embarrassment by being stripped of all prerogatives and powers.
Gibbons’s insistence that President Kennedy’s death was an occurrence for the teamsters to mourn seems to have been the solitary occasion when he stood up against Hoffa’s addiction to impious cant. He made no fuss over the case of Frank Matula, whom Hoffa designated as one of the union’s national trustees in 1958, when Matula was in prison for felonious perjury. Matula was henceforth granted a semi-annual leave of absence for a trip to Washington to examine the union’s books and certify their purity. Gibbons could swallow the likes of Frank Matula and then stick at Richard Nixon; there is, I am afraid, something to be learned about the nature of idealistic American liberalism in this example of a leader who thought the teamster deserved no one better than a felon as protector of his treasury, and then insisted that the country deserved someone better than Mr. Nixon as its president.
Once Clark Mollenhoff asked Hoffa why he kept Glenn Smith, a convicted burglar, as lord protector of the Chattanooga Teamsters Joint Council, and he replied: “Glenn is the kind of guy we need down there…. We got to have somebody who will kick those hillbillies around and keep them in line. Glenn does it.”
This rooted disesteem for the truckers he always called “the men in the field” did not, it has to be conceded, prevent Hoffa from taking a sincere, if unmerited, pride in his commitment to their welfare. He could listen untroubled to accusations of every kind of perfidy, but he would bridle at any imputation that “I am selling the workers of America.”
He seems, however, to have regarded such conscientious scruples more as a personal quirk than as a professional standard. He was so far from demanding such scruples from subordinates less restrained by their prejudices that he would no more cast a man off for taking a bribe from an employer than he would for cracking a safe. There is the instance of Sam Goldstein, a displaced bookie who had found refuge in a New York Teamsters local, and then was caught in extortion and sent to jail, where he was maintained in full title and salary, until the scandal of these kindnesses grew so noisome as to compel Hoffa to send word that Goldstein would have to stop enjoying what he did not dispute to be a class martyr’s due. The message bearer gave this report on Hoffa’s views, as recorded by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
“The [Senate Rackets] committee hit me with this thing between the eyes,…” [Hoffa] said. “This guy’s got to go.”… “I’m going to make a statement,” he says, “that I’ve instructed the local….” “I don’t care if you want to steal, want to rob,” he says…. “Don’t get caught, don’t get caught.”… And he says, “Let time go by a year, he can go back on the payroll,” he says. “There ain’t gonna be no more investigations.”
Except for the excess of their acceptance of sin, these declarations express Hoffa’s fidelity to the strongest unifying force in the American labor movement, which is not its class but its professional solidarity. The fraternal ties binding man to man are not between official and worker but between official and official. Trade unionism is not a vocation but a career. That recognition pervades the best as well as the worst elements in what Hoffa always called “the union business.” Brill devotes a chapter to Ron Carey, president of the United Parcel Service local of the Teamsters, an officer of extraordinary conscience, who was painfully disillusioned not only because his integrity left him isolated in the union’s family but also because his position did not bring the rewards that America promises the man who does his work well.
“In terms of power and money and the other things you’d expect I’d have after ten years,” Carey told Brill, “this job really hasn’t brought that. I love the job, but it hasn’t brought exactly what you, or even I before I got it, would expect.”
“Our life styles haven’t changed a bit, since Ron took office,” Mrs. Carey observed “with an amused half-smile.”
The run of his fellow professionals are Carey’s moral inferiors, and, like him, they feel deprived, and, unlike him, they are not made helpless by ethics. So it is only natural that the national conventions of their brotherhood are overwhelmingly concerned not with the wages and working conditions of the teamster but with the security and comfort of his business agents. Their agenda is dominated by continual refinements of constitutional provisions like those authorizing the general president to travel wherever he feels it necessary for “the purpose of conserving his health…[with] expenses and allowances to include the full and complete maintenance of his wife”; that guarantee the right of any official to draw upon his treasury for legal fees made necessary by his criminal indictment; that provide drastic penalties for any member who violates his duty “to abstain from abuse of officers or fellow members by written or oral communication”; and that solemnize the convention as a quinquennial conference on professional concerns by raising higher and higher its barriers to the election of any delegate who is not also an officer of his local union.
This mark of caste glows in the union’s pension fund for officers and employees, which is administered with exemplary fiduciary caution as a solitary exception to the general practice of managing the loan portfolios of Teamster welfare funds. The latter can serve as a credit portfolio for every wild dream some retired bootlegger, or distressed bookmaker, might have of attaining security as a casino proprietor.
But then the past and the present that Moldea and Brill so remorselessly detail persuade us to share Hoffa’s judgment that there exists no moral standard in America if we amend it to read that there exists in America no moral standard that is not subject to suspension whenever persons of consequence feel a need to suspend it.
Teamster pension funds are, after all, managed by a partnership of employers and union officials; and if employers can fairly argue that the partnership is uneven, it remains the case that no employer has ever been known to protest this looting of the property of his employees. Even in 1966, when the gates of prison had all but closed upon him, the resources of his Political Action Fund still had such authority that the last Teamster convention over which Hoffa presided could mount a parade of filmed messages from the Republican minority leader of the Senate (“my warm and friendly greetings”), from the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House (“you are good campaigners for good causes”), and even from the junior senator from Connecticut, whose efforts as director of President Kennedy’s campaign had earned him a seat in the cabinet (“how impressed I was with the leadership of your organization”).
Any estate wealthy enough to acquire and display baubles as expensive as these has a great deal of ruin in it. And Hoffa’s heirs, or more precisely his usurpers, have continued to exercise the majesty of their purse and the weight of their puissance to command from official society a respect denied them everywhere else. Presidents of the United States come and go but one changeless duty of the office seems to be the wooing of Frank Fitzsimmons, president of the Teamsters Union. Mr. Nixon cozened Fitzsimmons, Mr. Ford’s secretary of labor extolled the Teamsters as “my kind of union.” Even now, when the Justice Department occupies itself with investigations of the pension fund and Fitzsimmons reeks to the heavens with the accrual of benefits from Hoffa’s demise, Mr. Carter feels compelled to invite him to lunch and try to dissuade him with flattery from aggressing against the administration’s wage guidelines.
These spectacles suggest that, with ordinary luck and normal containment, Jimmy Hoffa might have been alive today as president of the Teamsters and approaching those golden years when, without his ever having had to crook his knee to the conventional pieties, they would bow to him as rich and venerable enough to have earned the reverence of that established church whose doctrine it is that whatever is is good.
Even in his first crude years of sovereignty, while his words railed against all order, his actions indicated that he was less battering ram than prop to that order. He united with the truck operators’ lobby in the assault upon the federal treasury whose spoils were the National Highway program. As a collective bargainer, he showed a statesmanlike concern for modest improvements in the wages of his members and substantial improvements in their discipline at work and their patience in quarrels with their employers. The balance of his stewardship suggested that it would not have been long before the social scientists and the bankers would be sitting at his feet in indistinguishable attitudes of respect if Robert Kennedy had not become attorney general of the United States.
In his four years as attorney general, Kennedy managed the indictment of a hundred Teamster officials and secured the convictions of most of them. Hoffa was one of the last of this bag. In the face of Kennedy’s terrible harassment, he had remained a steadfast protector of thieves, but left unsettled the question of whether he was himself a thief. No matter how evil his imagination might be, the worst man’s sins are bound to be inhibited by a twenty-four-hour surveillance; and in the end the Justice Department abandoned hope of establishing fresh enormities and finally settled for charging Hoffa with offenses the newest of which had been committed ten years before and none of which would have been sufficient to inflame law officers against anyone except Jimmy Hoffa.
Eventually Hoffa survived three trials and was limping into two more with a garrison that had been five years under bombardment and stunk with the corpses of its fallen; and, from the weariness of these grapplings, he broke then in the only way that a captain of his kidney could ever break, not with thoughts of surrender or languishings under despair, but with one raucous, clanging sortie from his gates against the army of his besiegers. He attempted to bribe two jurors and was caught beyond all hope of salvage; and Edward Bennett Williams, who had once been his lawyer, spoke his obituary as a force in history when he observed that Jimmy Hoffa could be trusted for nothing except to improve a misdemeanor into a felony.
By then Robert Kennedy had lost a passion that had already been over-whelmed by his sorrows; and nobody was any longer much inclined to destroy Hoffa except his own associates, who had learned at last that the law would never leave them alone so long as he was free and on his feet. He went to prison; and the friends upon whom he had conferred the richest share in his great conquest exhaled their relief and took it all to themselves, and the Teamsters Union went on as it had before Robert Kennedy and before Hoffa, its morals in no way better but its ease of mind again restored by public indifference. When Hoffa emerged and threatened to return, it was only an ordinary business precaution to kill him.
When he travels in our thoughts now, it is oddly often in tandem with our thoughts of Robert Kennedy and not only because without Hoffa we are unlikely to have known the Kennedys as the stuff of historical myth they are: he was that dragon who is essential to every story of a questing knight. And yet he and Robert Kennedy have a more profound claim to companionship; they share the failure of a promise in their lives, a failure that has to do with their country’s incapacity for the fruitful cultivation of combative temperaments set against convention. There was in Robert Kennedy’s restlessness, his curiosity, his occasional—and in its way affecting—susceptibility to the defaulted claims of the commons, some of the makings of a great Whig. And yet his country, when it turned its back upon kings, seems to have dispensed with Whigs. The main business became competitions for a crown that, having been abolished as permanent, had been changed into a transient prize distorting every man’s ambition. In Hoffa there had been placed and misplaced the germ of radical pessimism—that intuition of the ubiquity of evil—that had nowhere to live except in consort with the criminal classes.
A year or so before Robert Kennedy died, Robert Lowell came upon him in New York and remembered:
One was refreshed when you wisecracked through the guests,
usually somewhat woodenly, hoarsely dry,
pure Celt on the eastern seaboard. Who was worse stranded?
Well, there was also Jimmy Hoffa.
Henry Regnery Company, 1969.↩
Hoffa and JFK May 3, 1979
Henry Regnery Company, 1969.↩