Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Save Now
Join People Perks and save up to $1,200 a yearGet 1 month free


Tough Jimmy Hoffa Fights to Take Over the Teamsters Again

Posted on

The 62-year-old man stands at the picture window of his Miami Beach condominium apartment looking down at his paunchy, postcardiac neighbors around the pool. “Maybe the elephant will come today,” he says after a while. It is a reference to death, and Jimmy Hoffa rarely speaks metaphorically. But he does not intend that the palm-fringed banks of a Miami creek should be his graveyard. He is frustrated by the specter of retirement glimpsed from his tenth-floor, $75,000 quarters and aches to be back in harness. A man who lifts weights and does 75 push-ups daily is not the usual senior citizen. “What am I gonna do? Sit around, read the stock market and complain?” says Hoffa, snickering at the flabby sunbathers below. “Fergit it! Roam around like a zombie on Collins Avenue? Fergit it!”

Despite a $1.7 million pension, paid in lump sum, Jimmy Hoffa’s obsession is to regain the presidency of the mammoth International Brotherhood of Teamsters (2.2 million members). For 10 of the union’s most expansive years he was in absolute command. Then in 1967 he went into the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., sentenced to eight years for mail fraud in connection with misuse of pension funds, plus five years for jury tampering. Hoffa emerged 58 months later after former President Nixon, in December 1971, commuted his sentence—with the proviso that he refrain from direct or indirect participation in union affairs until 1980. Hoffa is waiting out an appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. to lift that restriction, although a recent Supreme Court decision in another case upheld a President’s right to impose conditions on clemency. Hoffa’s attorney, constitutional law expert Leonard Boudin, says the cases are dissimilar: “One involved a reduction in the severity of sentence. Ours is an aggravation of punishment after release—never imposed upon an individual in the history of America or England.” Hoffa will also argue in his defense that he was not told of the restriction until after he had accepted the pardon.

He had hoped for a favorable ruling in time to be nominated on Jan. 12 for president of his old Detroit local 299. From that base Hoffa planned to run in 1976 for the International presidency held by Frank E. Fitzsimmons, once regarded as merely a stand-in for the jailed Hoffa, but now his bitter rival. But Hoffa was warned by federal officials that if he ran for even local office he would risk being sent back to prison. Upon his attorney’s advice, he promptly withdrew from the race.

Nonetheless, a major battle already dividing the International Brotherhood is shaping up in the Detroit local where both Hoffa and Fitzsimmons had their start. One faction is led by president Dave Johnson, who says he will step aside if longtime crony Hoffa wins his appeal; the other by Fitzsimmons’ son Richard, whom Hoffa calls “the kid with the tricky clothes.” (Richard Fitzsimmons is 45 years old.) A coalition slate with Johnson as president and Fitzsimmons’ son as vice-president has temporarily cooled tempers in the local.

In Hoffa’s conversation these days, Frank Fitzsimmons has replaced Robert Kennedy (the Attorney-General who sent Hoffa to jail) as his chief nemesis. “No one has ever been disloyal like this rat Fitz,” he growls. “All stool pigeons are rats. They scratch and bite you.” Hoffa contends that Fitzsimmons, whom he endorsed as caretaker president in 1971, teamed up with the Nixon Administration that same year to block his return to power. Says Fitzsimmons in rebuttal: “I didn’t have any discussion about the conditions of the pardon. I just respectfully requested that the President let my friend out of jail. But Jimmy has now eliminated the possibility of a friendship by making false representations all the way through. He signed an agreement not to come back into organized labor again, and he has totally ignored that. Hoffa has no place in the labor movement.”

Hoffa travels extensively, helping arrange real estate deals for a fee, sometimes hitting three cities in a day. ‘I can’t identify the deals,” he says, “because my partners might lose the financing.” Wherever Jimmy stops on his whirlwind itinerary, he says, he is greeted by Teamsters who tell him they would welcome him back. Hoffa always travels first class. “The members want someone who knows how to live just as good as the boss and outsmart him,” says he. “They don’t want no bum representing them.”

Though he was convicted for looting their pension funds, rank-and-filers affectionately remember Hoffa for giving them one of the highest standards of living of any union in the country. A Teamster refrain goes: “We don’t care if he’s getting his; he gets us ours.” While he travels Hoffa keeps in touch with old labor pals without trouble from federal authorities because he is head of the National Association of Justice, a privately funded prison reform group that serves as his forum.

“We want him back in,” a Miami Teamster says. “This so-called Colson deal involving Nixon built up a lot of support for Hoffa. We don’t want outside intervention, being told who we can or can’t vote for.” (Charles W. Colson, pages 54-56, is the former Nixon aide whose Washington law firm got the Teamsters’ legal account in 1971. He denies the charge by Hoffa backers that he was the link between Fitzsimmons and the White House that led to the unique restriction.)

To be sure, not all Teamsters want the return of the iron-fisted Hoffa rule. Some union officials prefer Fitzsimmons’ decentralized approach. Told this, Hoffa snorts, “Yeah, they like to divorce themselves from the rank-and-file, to have more time for the racetrack, golf course and sunning themselves.” Hoffa vows he will run the Teamsters again: “Nobody can break me. Most guys would fold if their liberty was taken away—getting up and eating to the sound of a bell. I’m determined to stay with it. There ain’t nobody tougher than me.”

James Riddle Hoffa got determination with his mother’s milk. Born on Valentine’s Day 1913 in Brazil, Ind., he was the third of four children. His father, a driller in the coal mines, died when Jimmy was 7. Five years later his Irish mother, who fed the family by taking in laundry, moved them to Detroit, where she took a factory job. “She never whimpered, never cried and never let anyone cry in front of her,” he recalls. “She’d give ’em a whack.”

The hard, blue-green Hoffa eyes, which he says have never wept, mellow as he talks about shielding his own children and grandchildren from the same hardships. “They should never want,” he says, “but this doesn’t mean you spoil ’em.” Shaking his porcupine-like hair, brushed back off his forehead, he chuckles. “Money is just a commodity,” he says. “Power is what lets you eat and sleep. When you represent men, whether they go out on strike or not, you have clout.”

He picks up a ringing phone and launches into a megalomaniacal monologue about a recent deal: “It was tremendous. I told those fancy lawyers to cut out the talk. Quit yakkin’ and passin’ around papers. Put it all in four lines. What are you makin’ noises about? Stop shovin’ files, get back on the track. Quit tryin’ to con me. I’ll chase you down the block. You ain’t gonna con me.”

His wife, Josephine, whom he met on a picket line in 1936 and married the same year, has retired to the bedroom while Jimmy is talking business. (A devout Catholic, she has a crucifix on the wall above the bed.) “She worries all the time I might get into trouble again,” he says gently. A family man who neither smokes nor drinks, Hoffa remarks, “A man who doublecrosses his wife would doublecross anyone.”

Hoffa is a voracious reader, mostly of economics and politics. (He raves about Chicago businessman Clement Stone’s Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, which he finished on a recent flight.) Besides reading, Hoffa loves to hunt and fish, which he does at his 900-acre camp in upper Michigan.

Business governs his life. Hoffa recently chewed out his son for taking his phone off the hook one night. “When you’re sleeping,” he told him, “everybody else is out scheming. You never know who will call to put a project through. Scheming is business. It’s not crooked.” But Hoffa is demonstrably proud of his 33-year-old son, James, a labor lawyer, and his married daughter, Barbara Ann Crancer, 36, who taught English before becoming a full-time mother.

Jimmy Hoffa quit school at the age of 14 to become a department store stockboy. Three years later he went to work unloading boxcars for a retail grocery company for 32¢ an hour. On a hot, humid day, just after the delivery of strawberries, he called his first strike. Threatened with the loss of the perishable fruit, the loading dock foreman sat down with him, and Jimmy negotiated the first of thousands of contracts in his 35-year career as a labor leader.

Hoffa was soon heading a small warehousemen local union and Teamster leader Raymond Bennett invited Jimmy to bring his men into the Teamsters, whose nationwide membership was then about 90,000. Hoffa’s climb through Teamster ranks was swift. He became president of the Detroit local in 1937, vice-president of the International in 1952 and chairman of the formidable Central Conference of Teamsters in 1953. When Dave Beck, president of the International, was convicted of embezzling union funds in 1957, Hoffa won the presidency.

That year, amid charges of widespread corruption, the Teamsters were voted out of the AFL-CIO. Throughout his term Hoffa staved off relentless federal efforts to jail him on a variety of charges. Meanwhile, among other union victories, he won in 1963 a single nationwide master contract for drivers of common carriers. Then in 1967, after he had lost an appeal on the jury tampering conviction three years before, the cell door slammed behind him.

The Teamsters, the largest and wealthiest labor union, with reported assets in their pension fund of $1.2 billion, continue to be tainted by alleged underworld connections. Federal grand juries are investigating more charges of misuse of pension funds.

“The first people to hire hoodlums and gangsters are employers,” says Hoffa, who boasts of his friendship and frequent breakfasts with reputed Mafia financial wizard Meyer Lansky. Hoffa’s Miami neighbors think of him more as a grandfather than a Godfather. When he is not traveling or “scheming” Hoffa is likely to be found crawling around a sandbox he built for his three grandchildren. “We love the man,” says retired Chicago textile man Bill Frishman, a neighbor. “He has more energy than all of us.”

Jimmy Hoffa thinks his condominium may have a rule about sandboxes in the backyard. “I don’t think we’re allowed to do this,” he says, in a remark that characterizes not only his determination to entertain his grandchildren but much of his own life. “But so far no one has said we couldn’t.”