Jimmy Hoffa’s Revenge
By Jeffrey Goldberg
The New York Times, February 8, 1998
[Read this article at The New York Times’s website]
On a wind-whipped fall day, a creaking, leaking motor home angles into the parking lot of the V.F.W. hall in Brick Township, N.J., and releases into a knot of waiting teamsters the scion and heir-presumptive of the most notorious labor leader in American history.
“Welcome to Brick, Jimmy!” shouts a barrel-bellied man, and James Phillip Hoffa shouts back, “Thanks, buddy!” and then the cluster of teamsters moves inside the hall, and Jimmy smiles wide, and a wave of applause washes over him. The applause is for his father too, the martyred father who, the mythology says, had this great union stolen from him by the Kennedys, and who had his life stolen from him by the Mob, and whose son is going to redeem this union in his name. Smoke gets in Jimmy’s eyes as he inches his way inside, where the air is damp and smells of cigarillos and Wal-Mart cologne and steam tables that keep the hot dogs hot. The teamsters wear black T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts that scream “Hoffa” like a threat, and these 45-year-old white men who drive trucks in the dead of winter and break their backs on loading docks while their bosses plot to hijack all the good jobs to Mexico, they buy up the sweatshirts at Hoffa rallies just like the black teen-agers who bought “X” caps to proclaim their to-hell-with-you militancy. These are freight guys, mainly, drivers and warehousemen, not “Buster Browns,” the shorts-wearing package boys—teamsters in brown shorts, can you believe it?—from the U.P.S. wing of the union, which is Ron Carey’s wing.
Hoffa points to the $30 sweatshirts and tells me, “We don’t get our money from the Mob, and we don’t steal money from the union treasury”—by which he means that he’s no Ron Carey, the disgraced teamster president who is neck-deep in an embezzlement scandal. Days earlier, a Federal monitor forced Carey to drop his bid for a second term as the teamsters’ president, making Hoffa the favorite for the presidency. The irony of this race—and ironies top ironies in the story of the teamsters—is that it wasn’t the guy named Hoffa who was accused of stealing an election.
Hoffa plows his way to the podium, and my attention is drawn to the men wearing jackets that read “Local 560,” which was once Tony Pro’s local, Tony Pro being Anthony Provenzano, the Genovese family captain and teamster leader (there was a time when this combination was no contradiction at all) who was thought to be the man behind the disappearance of Hoffa’s father, and I have to think that Hoffa doesn’t like seeing “Local 560” jackets around him, because to him, his father’s disappearance isn’t a Jay Leno joke whose punch line is Giants Stadium but a colossal tragedy. And then I notice a man hovering near Jimmy who stands out in this crowd of jeans-and-boots-wearing truck drivers: he has slicked-back hair, he wears a silk shirt open at the collar and his pinkie ring shines through the smoke. A pinkie ring suggests teamster fat cat, which in turn suggests Mob, and I try to figure out who he is, but it’s bad form to push through a wall of truck drivers, and anyway, the program is starting.
A local teamster boss named Fred Potter gets up and riffs, daringly, on a Kennedy theme, telling his men that “the question today is not what Jimmy Hoffa’s gonna do for you. It’s what are you gonna do for this union,” and I think I see Hoffa grimace slightly, because if there’s anything he can’t stand, it’s the Kennedys, who, the way he sees it, spread the black lie that his father was corrupt. In one sense, Hoffa the Son hasn’t been running against Ron Carey, or against any other teamster. He’s been running against Robert F. Kennedy, the prosecutor who chased his father from the union.
Now comes a South Boston teamster leader named John Murphy, a greyhound-thin militant who gets a floor-stomping greeting even before he tells the men about his heroic exploits. Murphy is the Hoffa campaign official who early last year dug into a pile of Carey’s finance reports, found a thread and pulled, unraveling the embezzlement scheme that toppled Carey and cleared a path for Hoffa that runs straight to the Marble Palace, the teamster headquarters on Capitol Hill. Murphy, who used to work for the Committee to Defend the Black Panthers, is Hoffa’s leftist theoretician, a blue-collar agitator who despises Carey’s supporters, “Ira Magaziner liberals,” he calls them, people who believe it their mission to uplift the working class, but wouldn’t be caught dead partying with them.
And then comes Dan DeSanti, the president of a North Brunswick teamster local who claims to get his retirees a $3,500 monthly pension after only 20 years labor, $3,500 a month for sitting still. And he’s treated like the biggest hero here because, after all, fat pensions and fat contracts are the reason people join the union in the first place. And then DeSanti introduces the man who will lead them all to victory.
Jim Hoffa, a 56-year-old labor lawyer, lifts his bulk on stage, looks out at the teamsters wearing his name across their chests and crows, “Weeeee’re back!”
He gives the speech he has given a thousand times, but he has energy. He knows these men. Yes, he’s a lawyer, white-collar down to his loafers, but he has stood by the fire barrel, he has driven trucks and he knows what makes a teamster mad:
“I’m gonna ask just one question here,” Hoffa says. “Is there anybody here who thinks the Federal Government wants a big, strong teamsters union?”
“No!” comes the raw-throated response. Real Hoffa men believe that the Department of Justice would do anything, legal or illegal, to keep the teamsters out of the hands of anyone named Jimmy Hoffa, which is the reason the campaign sells old Life magazines alongside the sweatshirts. On the cover of the magazine is a squinting and steely James Riddle Hoffa, the father, and inside, the story labels Hoffa’s teamsters “a national menace” studded with “grafters, gangsters and extortionists.” But someone who threatens corporate America and its lap dogs in Washington is who the people here in Brick want. They are scared, and not without reason; they’re scared of Nafta and deregulation and globalization, and their fear sometimes turns into paranoia about outsiders and shifting social norms.
“The Federal Government wants exactly what Ron Carey gave them,” Hoffa says, “a union divided, a union led by incompetents and a union that’s broke. We have got to turn that around. We’re going to deliver this union back to its members.” More cheers, even though Hoffa’s followers, as a rule, seem less interested in running their union as a democratic collective than in letting a strong man run it for them. That’s what Hoffa the Father was: the village chief. (“Yeah, that’s him,” his son says. “A father figure.”)
“When Ron Carey came up, he didn’t know any teamsters,” Hoffa tells his supporters. “He put a bunch of people in from the Mine Workers. His bodyguard was a Mine Worker, his main advisers were from the Mine Workers —.”
“Mine Workers are homos!” someone in the back yells, to a scream of laughter.
“— and I’m gonna tell you one thing,” Hoffa says, “I’ve traveled this country from coast to coast and there’s more brains and talents in the teamsters—I say let’s put teamsters back to work and fire the Mine Workers!”
The men cheer wildly, and the V.F.W. hall shakes.
“Now, I have to laugh when they say they’re going to investigate our campaign finances too,” Hoffa continues. Federal officials, having disposed of Carey, are now looking for evidence that Hoffa also broke campaign finance rules.
“I wish those investigators were here to ask you—every one of you has given money to our campaign. We didn’t steal the money from the treasury. You know, there’s always a reporter that doesn’t know anything about the teamsters, always wanting to ask questions, and you listen, you tolerate them, and then they say, ‘Some people say if Jimmy Hoffa gets in, you’ll bring back the black, dark old days.’
“You know what I said? ‘Are you kidding? We got a guy Carey who’s probably going to jail for stealing money from the treasury—I’m running to end the dark old days!’ “
There it is, the world gone upside down: Carey as Crook, Hoffa as Reformer. Though there’s a remote chance that Carey could return, and a better chance that Hoffa himself might be barred from the race, this, improbably, is where things stand. Now Hoffa pumps his fist, his supporters cheer madly and then they line up to take $5 Polaroids with their man. I find Murphy in the corner, waiting for his ride back to Boston, where he runs a small beer-drivers’ local. If Hoffa wins, Murphy is going to the Marble Palace with him. Unlike some of the men who have latched themselves to Hoffa’s name, Murphy is no self-dealer. For one thing, he takes a salary of just $62,400 a year, less than some of his drivers make.
“You know, if you’re going to represent the workers the right way, you’re going to be a threat to the economic system, so you’ve got to be clean,” Murphy says, reading my mind. “If you’re not, you’ve got no business being in this game.”
So does Hoffa belong in the game?
“Absolutely,” Murphy replies. “Absolutely.”
In the distance, I catch another glimpse of the pinkie-ringed teamster. Later he’ll tell me he’s simply a laid-off driver, hoping to catch a break at a Hoffa rally. But I have my doubts: in the teamsters today, it’s easy to wonder if even the innocent are guilty.
It never used to be so hard to figure out who the bad guys were in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, America’s second-largest union and one of its dirtiest. Corruption has always been the Achilles’ heel of organized labor, and the teamsters have at times been all heel: three of the union’s last six presidents ended their careers in jail.
Ron Carey once joked about the curse of the teamster presidency. It was three years ago, and we were standing by his desk in the Marble Palace. I asked him how he felt sitting where Jimmy Hoffa and later Jackie Presser sat. We both looked at his chair as if it were electrified, and then Carey told me, with a wry little smile, to go ahead and take a seat.
Back then, he could afford to crack jokes. He was widely seen as a workingman’s hero, a fearless union reformer and a kingmaker too, who supplied the decisive votes needed by John Sweeney and his band of progressives to seize control of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the 13 million-member labor federation, from the centrists and cold warriors who had long dominated it.
Today, though, Carey may wish he never laid eyes on that chair.
Following revelations that Carey’s operatives embezzled teamster treasury money to aid his re-election campaign, a Federal monitor overturned the 1996 teamster election, when Carey beat Hoffa 52 to 48 percent, and later banned him from meeting Hoffa in a rematch. Carey is now on unpaid leave from the union, fighting to overturn the Federal rulings while facing possible indictment in the embezzlement scheme. Hoffa now stands as the only candidate for the presidency, though several prominent teamsters from Carey’s wing are jockeying for the right to face him in a rerun. (The election has not yet been scheduled.) Hoffa is the obvious favorite to win the presidency: his opponents’ best hope is that Federal officials, now investigating the finances of the 1996 Hoffa campaign, will knock him out of the race, too. If so, Chuck Mack, a key Hoffa ally and the teamster leader of the San Francisco area, is a probable replacement.
The Carey scandal is serious, and spreading. Three of his operatives have already pleaded guilty to fraud charges. They helped divert more than $700,000 in teamster treasury funds to liberal advocacy groups; that money was then diverted to Carey’s campaign accounts. Stripped of euphemism, what Carey’s men did—with his knowledge, investigators claim—was to embezzle the dues money of rank-and-file teamsters in order to perpetuate their man in his high-paying office, a plot that stinks of Old Guard-style corruption.
Reid Weingarten, Carey’s lawyer, says his client has done nothing wrong. If there is any justice in this process, Mr. Carey will be completely vindicated,” he says. “The charges against him are utterly inconsistent with Mr. Carey’s well-documented lifetime in union reform.”
The odor of scandal is reaching beyond the teamsters. Kenneth Conboy, the Federal overseer who barred Carey, has accused Richard Trumka, the secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., of illegally diverting union funds into Carey’s campaign. Trumka has taken the Fifth in response to investigators’ questions; his lawyer, Nicole Seligman, says, “We are confident the facts will show convincingly that Rich Trumka has acted properly and lawfully.”
Conboy has accused other Carey allies, including Gerald McEntee, the president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and Andrew Stern, the president of the service employees’ union, of trying to improperly aid Carey’s campaign. “I was never asked to raise money and I did not raise any money for any candidate in the teamsters election,” says Stern. McEntee’s spokeswoman says only that he is cooperating with investigators, and has no comment.
The mushrooming financial scandal may prove disastrous for the fund-raising network of unions, liberal “good government” groups and the Democratic National Committee. Federal prosecutors conducting a separate criminal probe say that the D.N.C. steered donors to Carey’s campaign in exchange for teamster donations to Democratic causes. It was Carey who turned the teamsters, long a Republican-friendly union, into a cash cow for the Democrats, sending the bulk of the $10 million the teamsters spent in political contributions over the past five years to Democratic candidates.
Most of all, though, the scandal is a disaster for the rank and file. A powerful union means an empowered worker; a union divided and under siege can mean distracted labor leaders, emboldened employers, an empty strike fund and weak contracts.
The teamster scandal erupted just as organized labor was having its best year in memory. Last fall, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., with the teamsters at the forefront, defeated President Clinton’s bid to win fast-track trading authority. Months earlier, the teamsters mounted a surprisingly successful strike against U.P.S. This was Ron Carey’s most glorious moment, proving that the perpetually beleaguered teamsters union could still protect its members from the ravages of the global economy. Yes, the union’s treasury was nearly tapped out (down from $155 million when Carey took over six years ago to less than $10 million today) and yes, membership numbers were flat, but the strike seemed to be the spark that might set the union’s organizing drives on fire.
Now, though, the Sweeney revolution is tainted, a Republican-led investigation is taking shape in Congress and press coverage is focused, once again, on teamster corruption.
The Ron Carey story was not supposed to turn out this way.
Carey is a onetime Republican who transformed himself into a darling of the leftist teamster reform movement, and his 1991 election victory was seen as a repudiation of the union’s felonious past. It was also seen as proof that direct Federal supervision of the teamsters, the outcome of a Federal R.I.C.O. suit against the union, would be remembered as a smashing success. By 1992, when Carey took office, the teamsters were already three years into Federal supervision, and Carey quickly pleased his Federal overseers by selling the union’s jets, cutting his salary and removing the leaders of corrupt locals. He said all the right things about throwing the bums out and returning control of the union to its members, and his press coverage was adulatory.
The truth would turn out to be more complex. In fact, there have long been questions about Carey’s moral purity: about his testimony on behalf of a mobbed-up member of the Queens U.P.S. local of which Carey was (and still is) president; about allegations made by a high-ranking Lucchese family turncoat that Carey was mob-controlled; about his improbably lavish real-estate collection; about a Mafia loan-shark ring financed by his local’s money.
Carey has repeatedly asserted his innocence, and to his obvious relief, the Independent Review Board, the quasi-governmental body that oversees the union, issued a report in 1994 clearing him of these charges. But the report did nothing to end the civil war between Carey’s forces and those then coalescing around Hoffa.
Many teamster leaders opposed Carey because of his efforts to cut their salaries and perks. But many were ideologically opposed to the union’s leftward turn, and critical of Carey’s alliance with the D.N.C. While Hoffa and his supporters tend to be Democrats, they are more conservative than Carey, and believe he and his allies have paid too much attention to liberal social causes and not enough to rebuilding the union.
By the time Carey took office, the teamsters’ union, like most unions, had seen its best days. Membership swelled during Jimmy Hoffa’s reign, from 1958 to 1971, and peaked in the late 70’s at about 2.3 million. By the 90’s, the teamsters were down to about 1.4 million and had become, by necessity, a catch-all union. Today, the teamsters’ freight division, the victim of trucking deregulation, stands at only 120,000 members. The union now includes 250,000 warehouse and food-industry workers, 180,000 U.P.S. employees, 10,000 Northwest Airlines flight attendants (300,000 teamsters are women) as well as nurses, firemen, sheriffs, custodians, gravediggers and, if you can imagine, the actors who play Mickey Mouse and Goofy at Disney World.
During the bruising 1996 election between Hoffa and Carey, voter turnout was particularly heavy in the freight division (where Hoffa was the overwhelming favorite, as was his father) and among U.P.S. workers (who went for Carey, a onetime U.P.S. driver). But in some locals, fewer than 10 percent of the members returned their ballots; all told, only 35 percent of teamsters voted—and this was an election in which ballots were mailed to members’ homes.
Now, rank-and-file disaffection is a more serious problem than ever. “The members are in shock,” says Randy Cammack, the principal officer of a 14,000-member teamster local in Los Angeles. “They’re just burnt out. They don’t know what to think. The Carey people were accusing the Hoffa people of crimes, but then they committed crimes themselves. So you have to go back and question everything that’s been said.” Cammack, a former Carey supporter, has moved to Hoffa’s camp. “We need someone to unify the union, and he’s the only one who can win.”
The possibility of a Hoffa presidency has thrown organized labor into a tumult. Hoffa has accused Sweeney and Trumka of openly backing Carey, and some of Sweeney’s opponents hope that a Hoffa victory would curtail Sweeney’s power. If Hoffa were to win the teamster presidency, he would control 10 percent of the votes in the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which would be a strange twist of events given that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. expelled the teamsters 40 years ago as punishment for electing Hoffa’s father as president.
Sweeney has made his peace, at least outwardly, with the idea of a Hoffa presidency. “I respect Jim Hoffa for what he is in terms of his own contributions to the labor movement,” he says, “and I will be more than happy to deal with whoever the teamsters choose to be their president.”
The most significant roadblock to Hoffa’s ascension may be the probe into the finances of his 1996 campaign. If the Federal monitor overseeing the election, the former Manhattan prosecutor Michael Cherkasky, finds evidence that Hoffa knew of any scheme to fix the election, he could bar Hoffa from running. Cherkasky’s investigation will probably not be completed before next month, and he has refused to comment about the targets of his probe.
Hoffa seems unbothered by the investigation: to him, Cherkasky is just one more Government agent in a 40-year line of Government agents fighting the Hoffa family. Hoffa sees Government supervision as a conspiracy to keep the teamsters weak, and he sees Carey as the Government’s man. In Hoffa’s view, the Federal Government favored Carey until Hoffa’s own men discovered Carey campaign crimes that were too flagrant to ignore. “We found the records, we found the checks and we took the Government and put their nose in it and said, ‘This is embezzlement,’ and they finally said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Hoffa says bitterly. “We were the ones who eventually brought Ron Carey down. The Government hated that, but they finally saw it.”
Hoffa is a complex man, but his defining characteristic is an abiding distrust of the Federal Government and the leaders it anoints. Carey, Sweeney, Trumka, Cherkasky—they’re all the same to him, men whose mission it is to deny him what was taken from his father.
Hoffa’s office, on the ground floor of an orange-brick teamster building in a blasted-out section of Detroit, is depressing and dank, and bare of furnishings, the office of a man who doesn’t spend much time there. His official title in the union is administrative assistant; he was put on the payroll of the Michigan Teamsters Joint Council in order to qualify him to run for president. On one wall is a drawing of his father, with Mount Rushmore in the background. On another hangs a poster from the 1992 film “Hoffa,” in which Jack Nicholson played the teamster boss. Hoffa didn’t like the movie much, but he likes the poster—“He Did What He Had to Do,” it reads. “That’s my dad,” Hoffa says.
He grew up the middle-class son of a working-class icon. His father got him summer jobs driving trucks, but law school was the ultimate goal. When football got in the way of college—Hoffa played both offense and defense at Michigan State—his father forced him to quit the team. When I asked Barbara Crancer, Hoffa’s older sister, if she or her brother ever rebelled against their father’s wishes, she replied: “We never had a rebellious stage. Our father would never have allowed that.”
Hoffa graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, and, in his only early bout with celebrity, ran in 1967 as a Democrat for a seat in the Michigan House. After losing that race, he built a modest labor law practice, servicing teamster locals allied with his father. Since then, Hoffa, his wife, Ginger, and their two sons, now in their 20’s, have lived in middle-class contentment and obscurity. His life to date has not shown the markings of greatness.
Sitting with Hoffa on a rainy day in December, I take out of my briefcase his father’s last book, “Hoffa: The Real Story.” It is animated by Hoffa’s fighting spirit, and it is wonderfully self-serving. I turn to a chapter near the end and read aloud his father’s final words on the subject of union power: “I see one last big round of fights coming between labor and management… .In the old days, they bombed our homes, shot us, used tear gas on us and beat the hell out of us. It can happen the first time there’s a depression and there would be a knockdown, bloody battle again… .When that war comes, Jimmy Hoffa wants to be right up front.”
By the time this book was published, in late 1975, Hoffa was already dead. I now ask his son if these are the beliefs that motivate him, too.
“My father was a very different person than myself,” he says. “I’m my own person. My father was born in 1913. He lived through the Depression. He came up through the school of hard knocks. I’m not going to war with anyone.”
I then mention the Indian-wrestling affair, in which Hoffa’s father claimed he was challenged by Robert Kennedy to an arm-wrestling match. Hoffa’s father said at the time that he beat Kennedy—twice. This, he claimed, was the root of his problems with Kennedy. By humiliating Kennedy physically, Hoffa wrote, he sealed their feud. (Kennedy’s book on his war with Hoffa makes no mention of any arm wrestling.)
I ask Hoffa if he would be challenging Janet Reno to an arm-wrestling match.
“No, no,” he says, but adds, with half a smile, “I could take her.”
Then, when he realizes I’m writing down what he’s saying, he freezes. “Look, I’m a lawyer. I have no beef with the Department of Justice.”
Even though I’ve known only one of them, it seems safe to say that Jimmy Hoffa is no Jimmy Hoffa. Which is certainly for the better, and maybe also for the worse.
I first met Hoffa three years ago, at a Las Vegas meeting of the teamsters’ Women’s Caucus, which was dominated entirely by men. It was a pro-Hoffa crowd, and the men in charge made up Hoffa’s brain trust, as it were. They included Larry Brennan, the bilious and potty-mouthed chief of the Michigan Teamsters Joint Council, who lectured me at length about the “bull dykes” who run the women’s caucus. Hoffa himself seemed like an afterthought at the convention, a front man for Old Guard teamster interests whose greatest asset was his name. I wrote this up in an article for New York magazine, calling Hoffa a soft and satisfied man with ethics problems of his own.
He remains, three years after I first met him, mostly unreadable. His pale gray eyes are as smooth and impenetrable as opaque glass. Various commentators have, in one fashion or another, characterized him as dim, but what that may reflect is that he is wary, and often inarticulate. When he strays from his stump speech, he is not a convincing talker, and he is unskilled at grappling with policy issues.
He has, however, earned the right to be wary, after bearing his name so long. He is a man who, when he arrives at a hotel, sometimes hears clerks gibe, “Oh, so you finally showed up.”
Over the past two months, in a series of conversations, he would usually wave away my questions about his father and his family. But recently, in a hotel suite in Washington, he told this story:
“Under Michigan law, it takes seven years to declare someone dead. I had to marshal my father’s assets, I had to file reports for seven years before a declaration of death was issued. I’ll never forget this—one day my mother said, ‘How long is this going to take?’ I said, ‘Seven years.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Well, I won’t be here.’ And she died before the seven years, died in 1980. She died of a broken heart. She lost her will to live.”
He paused for a second, and then muttered, “Ah, it’s one of those things.”
I was mistaken about him; he is not as soft he seemed. He led his family through the time of his father’s jailing, and his disappearance. He has slogged through a relentless campaign and built a national slate of candidates, and he has withstood the insults hurled at him by Carey and by the press.
Of course, the ability to weather adversity does not by itself qualify a man to run America’s biggest private-sector union, and Hoffa is, in one important respect, profoundly unqualified to serve as teamster president. He is the first candidate for the job in memory who has not even served as a shop steward.
And, aside from the investigation into his campaign finances, he has his own ethical problems to confront. In 1970, for instance, he was a partner in an investment plan with a man named Allen Dorfman, a close ally of his father. Dorfman, who would eventually be gunned down by mobsters in Chicago, was a well-known organized-crime figure who, thanks to Hoffa’s father, was able to steal from the teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund.
“I had no relationship with Dorfman,” I heard Hoffa tell an unsuspecting reporter in Massachusetts late last year. Three years ago, however, he told me that he was in a limited partnership with Dorfman for “one or two years.” He said then that, back in 1970, he was “a young kid” who “didn’t know his reputation.” But by 1970, Dorfman’s reputation was well established, and Hoffa was already four years out of law school.
Nothing upsets Hoffa more than questions about Dorfman, which he considers irrelevant to his cause. What counts, he says, is his love of the rank and file. “I have a great dedication to making these guys’ lives better,” he says. “That’s what I believe in. That’s what this is about.”
He is right about one thing: many rank-and-file teamsters don’t seem to be terribly bothered by questions about his past. His support, he says, comes from members motivated by self-interest, who believe, as he does, that their union has been adrift since his father disappeared. “This union is in a sorry state,” he says.
Hoffa has only outlined general goals for his presidency: to rebuild the union’s treasury and to end the civil war between teamster factions. Hoffa has also suggested some surprisingly reformist proposals, including caps on officials’ salaries and stricter ethics guidelines. And he has succeeded in building a fairly wide coalition. Over the past three years, his campaign has jettisoned some of the unreconstructed Old Guard, elevating sophisticated regional leaders of solid reputation like Chuck Mack of San Francisco and Jon Rabine of Seattle. A Hoffa administration would see these men in positions of influence, along with John Murphy and Hoffa’s campaign manager, Tom Pazzi, a savvy political operative who began his career in, of all places, Robert Kennedy’s Presidential campaign.
Another goal, Hoffa says, would be to end what he calls the union’s slavish devotion to a single political party. He would undoubtedly fire the liberal activists who now staff the Marble Palace, and end the union’s automatic support for Democratic candidates. “Our focus will be the nuts-and-bolts issues of better contracts and pension plans,” he says. “Workers were an abstraction to Ron Carey and his crew, something to be manipulated.”
At union halls and plant gates, Hoffa does seem to have a genuine feel for blue-collar workers and their concerns, despite his uncallused hands and his law degree. Aware that his white-collar background hurts his campaign, he tries strenuously to convince the workers that he is one of them. Two dozen times, I’ve heard him say on the stump, “I’ve stood by the fire barrel,” which is striker shorthand for, “I’ve stood in the cold on the picket line.” And he touts his own blue-collar associations. “I have social friends who are truck drivers,” he says. “These are people I have dinner with, who I play racquetball with.”
He says he also shares with blue-collar workers a distrust of Eastern liberal elites. “I don’t perceive that the workers are looking for social change. I believe they want to preserve what they’ve got, move along the continuum of good contracts and a growing union,” he says. “My belief is like my father’s belief—as long as the members like what I’m doing, I’m O.K. I don’t worry about some guy in Hyannis Port laying in bed reading The New York Times on Sunday morning with his bagel and his orange juice.”
Every so often, Hoffa drops a clue that his quest for the teamster presidency is motivated by something deeper than his love for the workingman.
Not long ago, while campaigning outside a freight-distribution center in Carlisle, Pa., he pulled out a copy of recent a Time magazine article describing the allegations raised against President Kennedy in a book by the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. “He couldn’t run for president of the teamsters!” Hoffa guffawed, smacking the picture of Kennedy with the back of his hand. “He’s too dirty to run the teamsters. He’d be disqualified!”
In moments of candor, Hoffa admits that his run for the presidency is one way of closing a circle: the Kennedys hounded his father from the union, and he will avenge his father.
When I asked him to explain his father’s reputation as one of the most corrupt and ruthless labor leaders in history, he said: “He was a very great man. He lived his life, and the answer is, the Kennedys went after him. The Kennedys could not control him. That’s why they went after him. My father knew about the Kennedys, we knew about that stuff,” he says, referring to the material in Hersh’s book. “This is nothing new to Hoffa. My father’s attitude was, ‘Who the hell were these people whoring around, then going after me.’ “
Hoffa, who teethed on his father’s legend, seems to live inside a myth in which his father plays the blameless protector of the workingman and Robert F. Kennedy plays the wicked prosecutor who seeks the public destruction of Hoffa as a way of getting his brother elected President.
The Hoffa-Kennedy war began in earnest in 1957, when Hoffa was called before the Senate McClellan Committee, which was investigating organized crime’s infiltration of labor. Robert Kennedy was the committee counsel; his brother served on the committee. Hoffa, then the top Midwest teamster, was widely believed to be in league with labor racketeers. Kennedy bloodied Hoffa but could not put him away, and the attacks only made Hoffa more popular among teamster leaders, who chose him the following year as their president. Kennedy continued pursuing Hoffa, especially after his brother appointed him Attorney General in 1961. Kennedy finally won: Hoffa was convicted in 1967 for mail fraud and jury tampering. He went to jail, lost control of the union and was murdered, the F.B.I. believes, when he tried to return to power over the objections of organized-crime bosses, who had made even more lucrative arrangements with Hoffa’s crooked successor, Frank Fitzsimmons.
To this day, Hoffa’s son refuses to acknowledge that his father, at the very least, made a devil’s pact with organized crime. From Hoffa’s perspective, his father is utterly free of sin. Other members of the Hoffa family offer a slightly more nuanced view. His sister, Barbara Crancer, a circuit court judge in St. Louis, described her father to me this way: “He was a very pragmatic person. If you had to deal with people, you dealt with people. Just go to New York City—there are certain people you have to deal with that you wouldn’t invite into your home. Agreed? You did what had to be done. Didn’t Joe Kennedy do that? Didn’t he have to deal with who he had to deal with to get his son elected President? I don’t think anybody doubts that anymore.”
The truth about Jimmy Hoffa is certainly more complex than his family would have it, but it is also more complex than some Kennedy partisans would have it too.
Jimmy Hoffa was a stone thief, but he was also a formidable labor leader.
To think of Jimmy Hoffa only as a gangster who robbed his union’s pension funds is to forget that he is also responsible for one of the great contracts in labor history, the National Master Freight Agreement, which doubled and tripled wages for truckers and lifted thousands of teamster families into the middle class. He was an autocrat, and he enriched himself at the expense of his members, but in many ways, he also made the teamsters the strongest they had ever been. Even critics like Ken Paff, the leader of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union who calls Hoffa’s son “a puffy little softy,” admits that the father was more labor leader than Kennedy would grant.
“The freight agreement was his high-water mark,” Paff continues. “But he was setting up a dictatorship. If you look at his legacy, the bad part is what we’re still dealing with now.”
What the younger Jimmy Hoffa knew is that some union workers like having a tough guy behind them. Their bosses act like gangsters, the reasoning goes, so why shouldn’t their union leaders?
Now Hoffa’s son is trying to take over a union in which some workers still feel the same way. I recently spoke with Hoffa supporters in the warehouse of the Barkoff Container Supply Company in Hayward, Calif., men who want a tough guy in their corner. “I was victimized by the last trucking company I worked for and I don’t want to be victimized again,” said one warehouse man, Jim Bittles.
So what do you think of Hoffa’s father?
“He was probably a gangster type,” said Vern Alstatt, a fellow warehouse man. “Like a Mayor Daley of Chicago. He ran the union a little bit crooked, but he ran it like a son of a bitch. Back in the 60’s, if somebody crossed a picket line, the union would be back the next day to beat the expletive out of him. They’d fight for your job.”
What about Hoffa’s son?
“There’s a gut feeling that he’s strong,” Bittles said. “Maybe you have to be a lawyer these days to know what’s going on.”
So even if Hoffa turned out to be a little bit dirty, it wouldn’t bother you?
“I need somebody to protect my job and my pension,” Alstatt says. “I don’t care about that other stuff.”
Why do you think the Government cares about corruption in the union if you don’t?
“The Government isn’t a friend to labor,” Bittles said. “They want to control us.” His is not an uncommon view.
On a Sunday morning in December, Larry Brennan, the top Michigan teamster and Hoffa’s nominal boss, stands before 60 members of his Detroit local, which is a perennial target of Federal investigators and which Hoffa’s allies say is under investigation by the Independent Review Board for possibly siphoning money into Hoffa’s campaign.
“If there’s ever a mob,” Brennan declares, “it’s the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the I.R.B. I’ll tell you this—the money that was paid to the Democratic Party was nothing but protection. If they ever let us get into the citadel in Washington, I wouldn’t be surprised if we brought the whole Government down. Everybody understand—that’s why they’re investigating us, because they don’t want that to happen.”
Then he eyeballs me and says: “You, newspaper reporter, you’re under control by the Government, too. You’re afraid to say what the truth is. I know exactly how you are. You’ll only print what you think will make news… .When Hitler took power in Germany, the night of the long knives, they destroyed property, burnt books, killed people. Well, we’ve had six years of that and survived. This union will survive.”
Though Brennan has been studiously left off the Hoffa slate, he remains the id of the Hoffa campaign, giving feverish and disjointed voice to its core belief: that the Clinton Administration, the Department of Justice and the quasi-official bodies created to oversee the teamsters are hopelessly partisan, and excused Carey’s imperfections in order to keep Hoffa out.
For years, Hoffa and his cronies ran against walls trying to make their case. They were stymied in part because their spokesmen tended to be people like Brennan, and in part because Carey seemed incorruptible. Finally, they say, the world is seeing that they weren’t all wrong.
“The adversarial relationship between some elements of the Federal Government and the Hoffa family is of long standing and is well known and documented,” says Pazzi, Hoffa’s campaign manager. “There seemed to be an obvious bias toward Carey and his people and against Hoffa and his people by both the election officer and the I.R.B. throughout the campaign, and we concluded that at least some parts of the Government wanted to pick winners and losers in the election, and we weren’t the ones in the win column.”
Arthur Fox, a left-leaning lawyer and longtime adviser to teamster dissidents, says he believes that the various union monitors were too willing to look the other way for Carey’s sake. “I think the ends-justifies-the-means philosophy was very much at work here,” he says. “They may have thought that Carey was infinitely better than anyone else who has come along, that it’s better to have Carey than Hoffa.”
The I.R.B. has, in fact, shown itself to be partisan. In 1994, its chairman, the former Federal judge Frederick Lacey, warned another investigator, Thomas Puccio, about the danger of probing too deeply into Carey’s background. “I told you …what would happen if you brought Carey down,” Lacey wrote to Puccio, “in that there were ‘old guard’ teamsters throughout the country that were hoping that Carey would be eliminated as a candidate in 1996 so that the clock could be turned back to what it was when I first came on the scene as Independent Administrator.”
Hoffa’s allies have long charged the I.R.B. with being soft on Carey. But now it is not only Hoffa’s camp that is wondering if anyone was watching the reformer. “We’ve had all this Federal Government supervision, and what do we have to show for it—a union that’s broke, that’s basically in receivership,” says Peter Hoekstra, a Republican Representative from Michigan who will be leading Congressional hearings into the teamster scandal this month. We want to ask the I.R.B., ‘Were you watching or were you not watching?’ “
After nine years of government supervision and six years with a reformer at the helm, the teamsters are in a weakened state. And this is a bad time for America’s flagship private-sector union to be divided and broke. Despite recent gains, most unions are not growing, and are reeling from globalization and anti-labor legislation.
This became clear to me in Detroit, the scene of a continuing teamster strike that might be more typical than last summer’s U.P.S. strike.
The unionized employees of Detroit’s two newspapers have been striking for 31 months, and they have lost. The newspapers took back the workers they wanted and left the rest in the cold. The workers, members of two teamsters locals as well as the Newspaper Guild and two other unions, continue to picket, if only to remind the people of Detroit that theirs was once a union town.
On a recent Saturday night, I visited a group of picketing teamsters outside a Detroit Free Press distribution plant in a Detroit suburb. About 15 strikers marched slowly back and forth across the plant’s entrance. Their evenings are choreographed: they are not allowed to block the entrance, but they do tend to linger in front of the driveway, and if they happen to block for a moment the replacement workers arriving for their shift, so be it. The replacement workers have a routine, too: they are to stop, honk, blink their lights and then proceed through the line of picketers.
The blood-freezing cold only serves to amplify the strikers’ anger. “Yeah, you $8-an-hour whore, go to your job,” one striker yells at a replacement worker as she drives through the line. A company detective videotapes the proceedings from a van parked just outside the plant gate.
“They’re messing with our lives, so we’re messing with them,” says Diane Valko, a striking teamster.
I ask the strikers what they think of Hoffa, and of Carey, who tried to break the deadlock. Carey gets lukewarm support; Hoffa is ardently disliked. “He lives right here in Detroit, but I don’t see him doing anything for us,” one striker says.
“This is beyond leaders, though,” Valko tells me. “This is about labor laws, and it’s about what the companies know they can get away with these days.”
Which is exactly right: Even the old Jimmy Hoffa, the larger-than-life figure who dominated whole industries, might have found the Detroit newspaper strike unsolvable. The companies are openly disrespectful of the unions, the law allows them to hire replacement workers and no moral or political authority in the city has been able to convince the newspapers that their path is wrong. Carey couldn’t solve the strike, and Hoffa’s son, who is distinctly not larger-than-life, probably couldn’t do it either.
The teamsters are still a force to reckon with in American life. They can be found nearly anywhere an hourly worker can be found. And they still possess the ability to wreak selective havoc on the economy, as they did during the recent U.P.S. strike. But gone are the days when the teamsters could cripple commerce by shutting down the highways. Even today’s most optimistic teamsters don’t believe that days like that will be returning anytime soon.
At about midnight, as they’re preparing to pack it in, one of the strikers, a middle-aged man named Mike Stringfield, tells me they’d stay out later if they only had fire barrels to keep them warm. I had noticed that there weren’t any, and fire barrels, as Hoffa never fails to point out to those who doubt his blue-collar credentials, are an essential element of any self-respecting picket line.
I ask Stringfield where the fire barrels are.
“The company got the town to declare that fire barrels were a safety hazard,” he says, laughing bitterly. “Isn’t that crazy? We can’t even get a damn fire barrel anymore.”