Hoffa's Seemingly Odd Commitments

Published August 12th, 2013 -  - 08.12.131

As I mentioned, I am writing a book about Jimmy Hoffa’s historical significance in American labor, law, and politics.  There are dozens of books written about Hoffa, but almost all of them focus on his disappearance on August 30, 1975 (and the vast majority of these “disappearance” books are dreadful).  The best books on Hoffa’s historical significance are, I believe, Arthur Sloane’s definitive biography, David Witwer’s nuanced treatment of the Teamsters and corruption, and Thaddeus Russell’s insightful study of the social and material influences on, and of, Hoffa.  I have learned a great deal from these books and hope to build on them in various ways that I will be writing about here.

Most of my students have little idea who Hoffa was beyond his association with organized crime and famous disappearance.  But of course Hoffa was also one of the most successful labor leaders of the twentieth century.  He was adored by his millions of members, in no small part because he raised their wages and benefits significantly, and at a much greater rate than most other unions.  His crowning labor achievement was the 1964 National Master Freight Agreement that brought more than 400,000 over-the-road drivers under a single national contract.  “The Teamsters Union is the most powerful institution in this country” besides the government, Bobby Kennedy wrote in The Enemy Within.  “Quite literally your life – the life of every person in the United States – is in the hands of Hoffa and the Teamsters,” Kennedy added.  Kennedy, who was not paying Hoffa a compliment, was right.

Some of Hoffa’s success in labor resulted from his connections with organized crime, which Hoffa deployed to knock heads both on the picket line and within the union (for example, in getting independent unions to be patient on wages in order to secure the important 1964 national contract).  In general, however, the significance of Hoffa’s organized crime connections to his labor successes has been overstated.  Most important was Hoffa’s unparalleled knowledge of the trucking industry and the economics of trucking, and his extraordinary bargaining skills (all of which is detailed in the James’ Hoffa and the Teamsters: A Study of Union Power).

More broadly, Hoffa had three commitments that undergirded his labor success but that are, in various degrees, out of fashion in the modern labor movement and labor scholarship.  First, he was committed to “business unionism” in the sense that he focused relentlessly and pragmatically on enhancing material benefits for members (as unions still do, of course), but eschewed larger progressive political and social goals for labor unions and members.  Hoffa was also, relatedly, suspicious of many welfare programs.  Second, Hoffa was pragmatic about political support, and threw his union’s weight to Republicans nearly as often as Democrats.  Third, Hoffa believed in centralized union power and was hostile to decentralizing and union democracy impulses – a combination few in the modern labor movement embrace.  (One can of course be for centralized union power and for union democracy, however conceived; Hoffa didn’t much like either.)

There were many reasons why Hoffa held these views, not all of them principled.  And it was a quite different era.  Nonetheless, I hope to explore here and in the book whether these ideas – Hoffa-style business unionism, greater union political diversity, and a de-emphasis on union democracy – deserve a more important place in the contemporary labor movement.

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