Teamster President Frank E. Fitzsimmons recalls that his ex-boss, Jimmy Hoffa, stopped by the office on his way to prison. “When Hoffa left here,” Fitzsimmons snickers, “he said he’d be back in 90 days. That’s Hoffa. His ego was as big as this floor.”
That was in 1967, and Hoffa never did regain the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Instead, control of the 2.2 million-member union—largest in the nation—passed into the pillowy hands of the 67-year-old Fitzsimmons.
Hoffa disappeared mysteriously July 30, thus solidifying Fitzsimmons’ position. The missing ex-Teamster boss, who ruled the union with an iron will for 10 years, hoped to be voted back into the presidency next June. Now Fitzsimmons is expected to win re-election in a breeze. “I think this is a great job,” he says. “I’m satisfied with the image of the Teamsters regardless of the attacks to discredit it.”
Surrounded by mementos, Fitzsimmons sprawls comfortably in the walnut-paneled president’s office of the Teamsters’ $7-million marble temple in Washington. Honorary plaques, a silver embossed groundbreaking shovel, a Colt pistol, a Pan Am model plane and toy trucks (“I like to have them when the poster kids come in”) are in a corner cabinet. An anteroom contains pictures of Fitzsimmons and one of his favorite golfing partners, former President Richard Nixon: “I see him as honest, sincere and warm,” says Fitzsimmons. “A great man.” On his desk is a note that San Clemente has called.
In sharp contrast to Hoffa, who had a bulletlike quickness, Fitzsimmons is slightly clumsy and vague. Though he has emerged as a skillful negotiator, he does not have the look of authority: He is overweight and pops out of his suit. His shoes are unshined and his trousers are too short. The power of the Teamster presidency has indeed diminished since Hoffa. Fitzsimmons favors a decentralized union giving more control to the locals. “I’m here to advise,” he says. “It’s impossible to be absolute like Hoffa. Jimmy’s image was hurting us.” His voice is almost inaudible as he shrugs off Hoffa’s disappearance: “His [Hoffa’s] son is still going through with that suit to allow Jimmy to run for president. Even if they rule in his favor, if the person is not alive, who is the recipient of it?”
Of his recent hobnobbing with New Jersey ex-labor boss Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano, a reported Mafia ally mentioned in connection with Hoffa’s disappearance, Fitz says: “I met him in the organization and he did a great job. I think he’s a good man. The word Mafia is so much baloney.”
Fitzsimmons also enjoys the company of such diverse celebrities as Luci Johnson Nugent (“We was over to the Rockefeller house when it opened and I had a chat with her”); Julie Nixon Eisenhower (“She should have been born a boy. She’s very smart”); and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (“I was over to Israel three years ago. We were in the Sinai and the Egyptians came out and hollered at us”).
Born in Jeannette, Pa., Fitzsimmons was the son of a brewery manager. As a youth, he took a job as a truck driver in Detroit, where he met Hoffa. Acquaintances for 40 years, the two men lived through the rough-and-tumble days of the Teamsters. “I still got some scars to show it,” Fitz says.
It was his loyalty to Hoffa that propelled Fitzsimmons from a job loading trucks for 22¢ an hour in the 1930s to caretaker president after Hoffa went to jail for jury tampering. In 1971 Fitzsimmons became the elected chief. To the day of his disappearance, Hoffa was contending that Fitzsimmons had teamed up with the Nixon administration to block his return to power.
A widower who remarried in 1953, Fitzsimmons has a son, Gary, 21, and a daughter, Carol, 18, by his current wife, Patricia. He has two sons from his first marriage; one of them, Richard, is vice-president of the Detroit local. Fitzsimmons lives in a six-room union-owned house in Chevy Chase, Md. and has a $270,000 home at La Costa, a resort north of San Diego. His salary is $125,000 and he says, “I bought the house. I’ve worked all my life.” His hobbies are fishing and gin rummy.
“I’ve been running this union since Hoffa went to jail,” says Fitzsimmons. “He was a forceful guy. We had many arguments. Everybody else would say, ‘Yes, Jimmy, yes, Jimmy’ because if you did anything that displeased him, he’d put you on his list. But I was never Jimmy Hoffa’s puppet.”